Dan Rodricks: New viruses, short memories and the need for constant, global vigilance

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Every 25 to 30 years, the eminent virologist Robert Gallo has said, a gap occurs in the study of viruses, and the results are devastating. It’s one of the reasons why Gallo, director of the Institute of Human Virology in Baltimore, established the Global Virus Network, a collaboration of disease experts in 32 countries who share information and watch for trouble.

It’s also why Gallo is still on the job. He turned 83 on Monday, with no apparent plans for retirement. He worries. He worries that medical science is not attracting enough young, brilliant virologists. He worries most of all about gaps in human memory, about politicians and scientists forgetting what happens when there’s a lapse in vigilance.

An election might produce a regressive government that is skeptical of science and cavalier about funding research. A whole community of virologists might turn away from certain diseases that other health professionals have learned to control.

When it comes to the big picture of humans and viruses, Gallo offers a lot of bandwidth.

Go back, he says, to the great influenza pandemic during and after World War I. It’s known as the Spanish flu, though, as Gallo points out, “It started in a barracks in the Midwest.”

Indeed, many historians trace the outbreak to March 1918 and an Army camp in Kansas. The deadly disease spread from there as soldiers were dispersed to other camps on their way to France. Some 670,000 Americans died, and the worldwide toll is estimated at 50 million, the deadliest pandemic in history.

Virology was a relatively new field 100 years ago. Still, Gallo says, even after the study of viruses expanded, there were lapses, about every 25 to 30 years.

There was the polio epidemic in the late 1940s and 1950s, and the period in the 1970s just before the pandemic of deadly acquired immune deficiency syndrome, caused by the retrovirus Gallo and two other scientists famously identified in the 1980s.

“It is eerie to read accounts of (the polio outbreak) showing that medical science in particular and society as a whole were focused on chronic degenerative diseases, believing serious infectious diseases to be conquered,” Gallo told an international conference in 2013. “Eerie also because that was precisely the attitude once again by the late 1970s, evidenced by the closure of some (university) microbiology departments, and threats of increasing reductions to (the Center for Disease Control and Prevention). … Some even felt humans could not be infected by retroviruses.”

It’s a history Gallo has recounted many times in lectures to make his point: “Humans have a memory span of only 30 years.”

And so here we are, six years after the Ebola outbreak, with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The world changes. The climate changes. Human habits change. People move. All of it can affect the natural chemistry of life and cause disease to emerge from just about anywhere on the planet. That’s why “America First,” the kind of nationalism espoused by the current president, doesn’t work. It’s why the Chinese government’s initial reaction to the COVID-19 outbreak harmed efforts to slow its spread.

Global cooperation on virus detection and response is essential. That’s why Gallo co-founded the Global Virus Network in 2011.

“We’re going to have epidemics we can’t know about,” he told me this week. “The key is a quick response to them. The Chinese medical scientists were superb and quick in response to (the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan). It was the government that was terrible at first.”

Gallo’s associate in the GVN, its president, Dr. Christian Brechot of France, believes global vigilance for outbreaks has improved, and he cites the international response to Ebola.

“Having said that,” he told an interviewer last week, “I still do not think the world is adequately prepared, particularly around diagnostics. Diagnostics are really the heart of controlling an epidemic. If you are able in the first phase of an epidemic to identify individuals, check them, and isolate where necessary, you can control an epidemic.”

But, of course, testing is where the United States has lagged way behind.

Over the weekend, a Chinese company stepped up to offer Maryland a set of kits good for 1,000 coronavirus tests. They are now awaiting distribution from refrigeration at the IHV on West Baltimore Street. It was a board member of the GVN, a Chinese businessman, who made the connection for the delivery through Gallo.

“Over the last 10 years, I’ve become close to the Chinese, I’ve been watching their work,” Gallo says. “They are exceptional in the biomedical sciences.”

He says he expects to see more Chinese companies and the government distribute more tests and much-needed medical supplies to countries, including the U.S., facing the pandemic. “China knows it was the source,” Gallo says. “They are extremely motivated to be the savior.”

Whatever the motivation, the help should be welcomed here, Gallo says. You don’t make the world safer by putting up walls.

He takes particular offense at the president’s reference to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus.” Though it was once common to associate a disease with its suspected country of origin, such nomenclature has been discouraged for several years. It works against the international collaboration needed to save lives in an ever-changing, fast-changing world.

It’s hard to see positives in the midst of pandemic, but Gallo thinks the GVN will get more attention now, and probably more funding, perhaps making less likely those 25-to-30-year gaps in vigilance he worries about.



Dan Rodricks is a long-time columnist for the Baltimore Sun.


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