Just Finished Reading: Virus X – Understanding the Real Threat of the New Pandemic Plagues by Frank Ryan (FP: 1996)
For a book that had been sitting, unread, for years I couldn’t help thinking that this time, of all times, was the best time to pick it up and actually read it. Living through an actual Pandemic that is affecting everything and everyone around us makes me want to understand more about what’s going on right now. Knowledge, no matter how disturbing, about a disturbing time can only I believe, calm fears and enable you to look at the present reality in the face without undue panic. In that sense knowledge is most assuredly power.
As the author rightly points out, Pandemics are a fact of human history going back to Ancient Times and beyond – from Measles, Smallpox, Plague and, more recently the 1918 flu Pandemic we all know as the ‘Spanish Flu’. Such things are neither unknown nor particularly rare – in fact they have through the millennia shaped human history itself. What is new today – or at least at the time of writing over 20 years ago – is both the frequency and the lethality of emerging diseases. The reasons for this are deceptively simple – we humans are, in our ongoing quest for more farmable land or more accessible resources, bumping up against environments were these diseases are present (often working in symbiotic equilibrium with their hosts) and are encountering them often for the first time. Without any inbuilt or developed immunity these diseases are often incredibly lethal sometimes with death rates approaching 100%. Fortunately for such lethal viruses this more often than not results in the virus quickly running out of hosts before widespread transmission can be achieved. Recent outbreaks of Ebola or other haemorrhagic fevers in Africa or South America fall like a thunderbolt on small communities working close to the rain forests and then, in a matter of weeks or months burn themselves out only to break out elsewhere. AIDS/HIV is something quite different. Although comparatively difficult to catch and, once outside the body incredibly fragile, it’s long incubation period and method of attack means that an inexorable slow spread across the world went almost unnoticed until the 1980’s long after it first appeared in Africa. Highly mutagenic and (at the time of writing) untreatable it was almost always a death sentence. It is hardly surprising that the world in general and the medical profession in particular reacted with shock and panic once the facts were known. Since that time a great deal of effort – unfortunately sometimes taking focus away from other emerging viruses – and a vast amount of money has been spent on addressing HIV/AIDS and much progress has indeed been made. But, naturally, that is not the end of things as today’s headlines testify.
It was obvious from the very start that this book is very out of date. Much has happening across the viral landscape since 1996. The focus of the book was largely on things like Ebola, AIDS, Marburg and other terrifying diseases. Interestingly the 1918 flu Pandemic only came in for a cursory mention – interesting though it was – and talk of general flu itself relegated to sprinkled facts throughout the book. In the final pages looking ahead the author mentioned coronavirus, China, and wildfowl as the next BIG thing. How right he was! He also lamented the lack of global preparedness despite everything we had experienced to that date (he would have been more shocked if he’d know about the SARS and MERS epidemics) and the defunding of labs across the world and the forward observation posts that could alert the world to problems long before they become disasters. Hopefully with Covid-19 we’ll finally learn the lesson that if you don’t prepare and aren’t willing to spend millions in prevention then you’ll need to spend trillions in catching up. An interesting (if sometimes truly frightening) read but useful only for an historical background really.