The movie illustrates what looks like a fundamental discovery in viral immunology.
British science jounalists are uniformly under-reporting it as a future fix for their common colds, but it´s much more than that: viral dysentery and HIV are mass killers. Dr Leo James (Nobel surely in the post, eventually) and his team have overturned a dogma that once viruses enter a cell, they take it over. They found out that in fact, if extracellular antibodies – the yellow stick figures – latch on to the virus, they accompany it into the cell, where they are in turn latched on to by proteins called TRIM-31 (the turquoise stick figures), which call up proteasomes (the orange and-brown drums), which eat the virus. Bingo. Knowing how it works is half the battle, and virologists everywhere have suddenly got much more effective.
Note to Rep. Darrel Issa: this is a discovery by foreign scientists, paid for by British taxpayers and charities, which will eventually save American lives. ¨Science in one country¨ is, and always has been, an absurd policy. Fundamental research is a contribution to a global project of humanity; a reimbursement by each generation of the benefits it has received from its ancestors in the only possible way, viz. an investment in the welfare of its descendants. Logically, it should be funded through the UN. Not going to happen, but the current national basis involves scientists in spinning a largely fanciful tale of appropriable technological spinoffs to the likes of Issa.
Credit: Texas A&M University; the photo is apparently from an outbreak in South Africa in 1897.
The FAO has announced its de facto worldwide eradication (the formal declaration will be a bow-tie event next year); only the second disease of any sort to have been bottled up definitively. It´s true that rinderpest never established itself in the New World, but the risk has always been there, and that and the prevention measures are real costs. Again, a freebie for American taxpayers from other people´s efforts.
The drive for smallpox eradication was in fact proposed in 1958, during the Cold War, by a deputy Soviet Minister of Health, the virologist Professor Viktor Zhdanov. Zhdanov was a real scientist, not to be confused with the repellent Stalinist inquisitor Andrei Zhdanov. I speculate that as viruses and bacteria do not evolve by sexual inheritance, research on them did not fall foul of Lysenko´s war on Mendelian genetics and Darwinism.
The eradication movies, whether for viruses or parasites, play out in agonizingly slow motion.
- Guinea worm (dranunculiasis) : campaign started 1986 by Carter Centre; down from ca. 3.5 million cases to 3,910 reported cases in four Sahel countries:. eradication predicted: ¨a few years yet¨ (WHO).
- Polio: campaign started 1988; down to 483 new cases in 2001 but has since gone back up and plateaued at around 1,500 a year; current eradication target: none given.
- Elephantiasis (lymphatic filariasis): campaign started 1993; eradication target : 2020 (treatment of infected people takes seven years).
- Measles: campaign started in 2001 for 90% reduction; eventual eradication agreed by WHO in 2010, no target date set.
Campaigns to eradicate hookworm, malaria, yaws, and yellow fever have been abandoned, or rather suspended until we have better technology. The Carter Centre says that it is feasible with current knowledge to eradicate mumps, rubella, and infection from pork tapeworms (cysticercosis), but the global public health community hasn´t signed up yet.
One of the most moving museums I´ve ever visited is the tiny one in Edward Jenner´s old garden in the Gloucestershire countryside at Berkeley. It was a long, winding road between James Phipps, the boy Jenner vaccinated in 1796, and Ali Maow Maalin, the Somali cook who was the last diagnosed victim in 1977. Both Phipps and Maalin survived. The hide of Jenner´s other involuntary collaborator, Blossom the cow, hangs on a wall at St. George´s medical school in London.
PS: several commenters on Harold´s post could do worse than consider the moral example of young James and Blossom. Neither had a real choice to contribute to the global public good, but they still did the right thing.