With a title like Science and the Seven Deadly Sins and more specifically Wrath Goes Viral you’d think we’d be in for an evening of mass murder, anger management, or internet bullying. But noooooooo, at the New York Academy of Sciences last night, we were treated to an informative and insightful discussion of the science behind real-life emerging infectious diseases like Swine Flu and SARS and Ebola. Sponsored in part by Popular Science the panelists were virologist Dr. Ian Lipkin (also science advisor on the blockbuster film “Contagion”), public health expert for the Center for Disease Control Dr. Daniel B. Jernigan and journalist and author Maryn McKenna whose book, Superbug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA won the prestigious 2011 Science in Society Award. The event was moderated by award-winning journalist David Quammen whose book Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic comes out this month.
In the late 1960s we heard that infectious diseases were over. Science was going to solve everything. We had all these antibiotics and anti-viral drugs and so we thought we had closed the book on infectious diseases. But that was wrong. Why was it wrong? Many things have changed. Antibiotics have become less effective. We live in a global universe where you can go anywhere you like. Anything over there can be here immediately. Diseases go global, deforestation brings about exposure to animals that we didn’t have before.
Jernigan pointed to flu. It’s an RA virus which has 8 gene segments so each of those genes can encode for a different protein and function. The virus can move from one person to another very quickly, from animals to humans and humans to animals with this ubiquitous capability for genetic copying and mutation.
Lipkin said we have the capability to name the viruses which makes a huge difference in public consciousness but there are differences to the way we are exposed to an infectious agent. 70 new viruses have come up which we would not have been exposed to if we hadn’t opened up forests and come into contact with bush meat.
Quammen pointed out that a lot of these viral diseases are zoonotic, coming out of animals. Where do they emerge from and why more now?
Water fowl and ducks and geese and also pigs to some degree as well. The opportunities for those things to come together are more now. There’s a density in populations in crowded cities which call for dense poultry and pig populations to feed the dense populations. Birds and pigs are easy to move around. Bringing pathogens from far away is easier than it ever has been which is different from 40-50 years ago.
McKenna noted that on one side of the economic curve in developing societies, there is an increased appetite for protein. On the other end of the economic curve, the movement of people to deforested areas looking for meat exposes them to novel viruses.
How about Darwin and evolutionary biology? How do pathogens become human pathogens? Each year we have to make a new flu vaccine because the virus is finding a way around the tools we’ve made, although we are working towards a one time effective vaccine. As said previously flu viruses have the ability to mutate and exchange genome segments and rapidly develop a whole new fitness environment.
Viruses spill over from animals to humans and vice versa. Some cases cause symptoms, some don’t. Technology plays a role in the spread of disease that we need to be aware of. Some believe that the hypodermic needle used in central Africa for malaria led to the origins of AIDS. French colonial doctors innoculating people for malarial and venereal disease, having to reuse the needles because of the scarcity, may have been effective promotions. The smallpox eradication campaign introduced needles in a broad way. Between reservoirs, failed intubations and superspreaders, we need to understand more about the Host, ourseleves, and why and when we are more likely to become diseased or turn into superspreaders.
What about the role of luck and random chance? One person infected with the SARS virus from the Metropole Hospital went to Hanoi and caused an outbreak. They didn’t know he was coming. One person from the French hospital went to Bangkok for treatment. The CDC doctors there knew he was coming and treated him. There was no secondary transmission.
Influenza and HIV are everywhere. The outbreak of SARS which killed only about 900 people of the 8,000 that had been infected could have been much worse. What extent early diagnostics, treatment tools, luck of where it occurred…Toronto, Beijing, Bangkok, Hanoi being command and control governments with good health care systems, are interesting dynamics for study. What would have happened if it had occurred elsewhere?
Funding of disease control is a huge challenge. While China is ramping up their funding, we’re ramping down. According to Lipkin, this will cause a brain drain away from the United States. We need to educate kids to go into science and math so we can have additional generations applying their talents to this area.
And finally some advice from the docs–wash your hands, get a flu vaccination, and hope you and the piece of meat you just ate are lucky…next up in the Seven Deadly Sins Series is Pride on November 28th.