Often forgotten, microbiologists answering the call

6 mins read


It is Saturday, July 25, and I’m in Port Royal.

This morning I’m without a newspaper — neither the Gazette nor the Wall Street Journal is delivered on Saturdays — but there is something to be said for not facing the latest coronavirus numbers; or the corresponding despair that comes with those numbers.

When I was16 my family decided to spend the Christmas holidays in Mexico City. As we passed through customs at Nuevo Laredo my father turned to me (by then I was the family’s navigator) and said, “From this point forward I don’t want you to drink anything but beer.”

For a moment I was stunned, but then he added, “The water is full of bacteria, mostly Shigella and Salmonella. So, for God’s sake, drink the beer.”

In short order I became familiar with Carta Blanca and later its progeny — Dos Equis and Tecate.

My father, an Army immunologist, was aware of the microscopic world that was then an abstraction for most Americans — an abstraction that Streptomycin, Penicillin and Aureomycin could contain.

But these days that abstraction is made manifest by Covid-19. Now obscure and un-noticed microbiologists have been summoned from their labs and rushed into television studios. They appear, largely devoid of make-up or sleep, and are given 45 seconds to explain the origins of the virus, its mutation, its transmission.

And now we want to know these things.

We want to know where Covid-19 came from. How it attaches to healthy cells. How it makes more of itself. But really, truly, what we want to know when it will leave, like past Flu pandemics — think H1N1 and SARs.

There is a theory, endorsed by some virologists, that viruses start off angry (killing their host) but change. They evolve into benign hangers-on who decide on detente — peaceful co-existence. They decide that its better to have a living host, or hosts, rather moving from person to person and leaving them dead.

And this kind of “settling-in”, or “calming down” happened more than a century ago when a coronavirus — known as OC43 — evolved into the what we call the “common cold.”

I must confess that I like this theory — peaceful co-existence — because it represents something better than the current mutual assured destruction theory that governs our relations with Russia and China. Could it be that these little bits of RNA encased in protein actually know something about diplomacy?

But, of course, they know nothing of diplomacy.

Most scientists, beginning with Wendell Stanley in 1935, decided viruses were simply a box of complex biochemicals — but certainly not a life form. Although they lack the characteristics that put an organism in the “It’s alive” category, they can replicate themselves.

They also know how to get past our mucosal antibodies, enter a cell, shed its coat, and then highjack the cell’s own replication machinery.

In recent years this remarkable ability to has led some virologists to upgrade these creatures into a “gray area” somewhere between chemistry and life.

But as our young, sleep-deprived, just-out-of-the-lab microbiologists explain this fascinating sequence we grow confused, and bored.

“Alright, already! So when is the damned thing going to leave?” we shout at the television screen. “When can I get rid of this stupid mask and get back to indoor, all-you-can-eat dining?

Indoor dining, college football and hugging one’s dinner party guests as they leave probably hinge on a reliable, antibody-making vaccine. And the arrival of a working vaccine seems probable rather than possible. It seems that its just a question of which of the 110 candidates will cross the finish-line first.

For most of mankind’s history, we’ve simply watched as millions died-off from Smallpox, Bubonic Plague and Cholera. We watched as carts rolled through the streets of London and Paris picking up bodies. For most of our history we’ve been helpless.

But thanks to the unknown, unsung men and women who have focused their intellect on this problem; who have concentrated their energy on defeating this creature, we seem to be months away from a vaccine that will deliver us from this relentlessly-replicating evil.

I have a coffee table book titled, “Icons of the 20th Century, 200 Men and Women Who Have Made a Difference.”

I’m happy to report it has beautifully rendered photographs of Grace Kelly, Thomas Edison and Shirley Temple.

I’m sad to say there is no Max Theiler, Albert Sabin or any other immunologist. Perhaps a bacteriologist or virologist will make the second edition.

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at cscottgraber@gmail.com.

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