By Dr K. Srinath Reddy
Never before has the whole world learnt so much about viruses, as during the Covid pandemic. Rapid spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus across the world, and its wizardry in changing shapes to create more infectious variants, has held humans hostage with a rising ransom of health and economic costs. However, with all the attention and publicity to the Covid virus, there have been few objective accounts of the role different viruses play in the context of human evolution, survival, health and disease. We needed an account that goes beyond the visceral fear of “germs” and an attitude that goes beyond a militaristic call to exterminate them.
Such a phobia-free description of viruses is now provided by Pranay Lal in his extensively researched, amply referenced, engagingly anecdotal, highly readable and beautifully illustrated book “Invisible Empire: The Natural History Of Viruses”. He reveals how viruses have aided the evolution of various life forms, even though they themselves are in a limbo of classification between the living and the non-living. He politely reminds us that 8 percent of our genes are viral in origin and informs that viruses cause a billion infections a day, enabling speciation. He calls them the ‘engines of evolution’, asserting that after the Sun and plate tectonics, viruses are the third most significant force to shape the course of evolution on earth.
There is a rich narrative of how viruses came to be discovered and named. Investigation of Tobacco Mosaic Disease in Europe, in the second half of the nineteenth century, led to scientists like Mayer, Ivanovsky and Beijerinck to conclude that the disease was caused by an agent smaller than bacteria. It was invention of the electron microscope that enabled the first virus to be properly sighted in 1939. It was the Tobacco Mosaic Virus (TMV)!
Even as the quest for identifying these tiniest microbes went on, the exciting story of human vaccination unfolded. Edward Jenner is famously credited with having demonstrated the benefit of cowpox inoculation in providing protection against smallpox, in the eighteenth century. Lal discounts the much publicised story of the idea emanating from a milkmaid and favours a country doctor called Fewster as the probable inspiration for Jenner’s successful ‘vaccine challenge’ study that went on to usher a world wide vaccination programme.
The ravages of small pox and the successful global campaign to eradicate it are well known. What Lal additionally provides to the reader are the experiences of different countries, including India, with historical insights into how religious beliefs and cultural practices were woven around a dreaded infection that caused disfiguration and death to millions. Smallpox also became a biological weapon for ethnic cleansing. A shocking story is the use of smallpox scab dusted blankets provided by the British Army in America to native (indigenous) Americans to deliberately infect and exterminate them. Lal wryly observes that there are sixteen towns and a college in USA which commemorate the dastardly exploits of General Amherst, the originator of this genocidal tactic. Spanish conquest of the Aztec Army was also enabled when the natives were reduced in strength and numbers by small pox which the Europeans brought with them.
There are descriptions of many other viruses too, from Herpes to HIV and rabies to polio, which provide a richly woven narrative of their history, biology and public health dimensions. What rises beyond that wealth of information is Lal’s philosophical perspective, which enhances his appeal as a scientist and raconteur. He argues against a polarised perspective which views viruses as enemies only, pointing out that they contribute to human health too. They do so as constituents as our gut microbiome and as ‘bacteriophages’ that can help to kill deadly bacteria when they infect us. The viral population in our gut helps to keep the bacterial population of the microbiome stable and friendly to our health, while destroying dangerous bacterial invaders.
While Lal faithfully narrates the competing claims related to the discovery and use of bacteriophages, what grips a reader’s attention is the thrilling story of how Tom Mix, a celebrity ‘cowboy’ movie star of Hollywood in the 1930’s was saved by a Stanford lab’s customised preparation of bacteriophages that killed the bacteria which were causing a serious peritoneal infection in him. Add to that another Hollywood sequel he presents of a critically ill Elizabeth Taylor recovering from life threatening pneumonia in 1961, after phage therapy.
Neglected after the advent of powerful antibiotics, phage therapy is making a comeback in the era of antibiotic resistance. To readers fascinated by Lal’s recounting of bacteriophage success stories, I can add Steffanie Strathdee’s book The Perfect Predator (2019) which is the real life narrative of an infectious disease epidemiologist desperately searching for a way to save her husband who was infected with deadly antibiotic resistant bacteria. Like a Hollywood thriller, which it is soon to become, the wife found in phage therapy the cure that the world had forgotten in recent decades, to save her husband. However, for Indian readers even more interesting is Lal’s association of the much reported bacteria free sterility of the Ganges water with its bacteriophage virus content.
Lal rightly relates the spread of zoonotic infections like Covid to the destruction of natural habitat and trade in wild life. He appeals for an ‘anthropo-pause’ in the assault of humans on nature which disturbs ecological balance. He pleads that it is ‘time to slow down our greed machine’. The book makes a convincing case to regard viruses, at least some of them, “as our friends”. Lal ends the book with a fervent appeal “if we are to survive in the future as a civilisation and as cultures, now is our moment to find ways to share our planet with all the life on Earth.”
Note to the Author: If I have any quibble of this elegantly written and pleasingly illustrated book, it is about the choice of using golden letters on a black background in some of the pages. It makes the text very difficult to read, especially to aged eyes. Please change this in future reprints of which I am sure there will be many.
Title of book: Invisible Empire: The Natural History Of Viruses Author: Pranay Lal
(Dr K. Srinath Reddy is President of the Public Health Foundation of India. He is a cardiologist and epidemiologist by training and a lover of good books. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)