We hear a lot about nuclear stockpiles. There are pacts and treaties and deals aimed at limiting and destroying nukes. But what about virus stockpiles?
The American Type Culture Collection (ATCC), headquartered in Manassas, Virginia, is, according to its website, a “global biological resource center and standards organization that provides scientists with the biomaterials and resources they need to conduct critical life science research.” ATCC, the site boasts, has “the world’s largest and most diverse collection of human and animal cell products, as well as molecular genomic tools, microbe products, and biological materials,” which it sells to educators and scientists around the world once they present the “appropriate documentation.” A request on institutional stationery that sounds knowledgeable is apparently enough for most purchases—a mishap in 1995 involved three vials of bubonic plague being shipped to some guy in Ohio who lied about being a legitimate scientist. Oops!
The World Reference Center for Emerging Viruses and Arboviruses (WRCEVA) at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) is another worldwide virus center. Arboviruses are transmitted by mosquitoes, ticks and other such insects. They cause encephalitis, dengue, and yellow fever. WRCEVA also has a number of bat- and rodent-associated viruses. The current collection consists of over 8,000 unique virus strains, kept in freezers. Several foreign governments have also established arbovirus labs, so these collections are all over the world.
“Gain of function.” “Lab leaks.” Much in the news today, yet horrifically, it’s old news. In a May 2014 article in The Atlantic, science writer Olga Khazan described similar events:
Swine flu, or H1N1, had been dead for 20 years when it suddenly re-emerged in 1977 with a curious twist. The new strain was genetically similar to one from the 1950s, almost as though it had been sitting frozen in a lab since then. Indeed, it eventually became clear that the late 70s flu outbreak was likely the result of a lowly lab worker’s snafu . . . The H5N1 avian flu killed two dozen people in Hong Kong in 1997. It has only killed about 400 people worldwide since then, though, because it doesn’t pass easily from human to human. In recent years, scientists have found a way to make H5N1 jump between ferrets, the best animal model for flu viruses in humans. They say they need to create a transmissible version in order to better understand the disease and to prepare potential vaccines.
So, create a disease so you can find a cure for it?
And back in November of 2015, Helen Branswell, a senior writer at STAT News, which covers infectious diseases and global health, wrote:
Destroying virus samples kept in laboratory freezers is a critical step in ensuring that a disease that took years to eradicate remains gone . . . These containment projects won’t be easy, people familiar with the process warn. “I think it’s going to be quite a challenge,” said David Salisbury, a member of the Global Commission for the Certification of Poliomyelitis Eradication. Individual countries are going to need to work with their science communities to identify, destroy, or securely contain supplies, he said. “Most labs are not going to want to put themselves through what they will have to do to show that they’ve complied with containment.”
Smallpox is estimated to have killed 300 million people in the 20th century alone. Declared eradicated in 1980, it was decided that all samples of it would be destroyed. It hasn’t happened. “Experts” agreed to keep the virus alive in order to improve vaccines should the disease reappear. The World Health Assembly—the World Health Organization’s equivalent of the UN General Assembly—decided it would be wise to have two smallpox repositories, one in the United States and one in what was then the Soviet Bloc, in the interests of “political neutrality.” (Like nukes?) How are viruses destroyed? One way is autoclaving, which is blasting the material with high-pressure steam at around 121°C for at least 20 to 30 minutes. It’s like a giant pressure cooker. We’re gonna need a bigger pressure cooker.
Perhaps the biggest difference between nuclear and virus stockpiles is the imagery connected to them. Think nukes and some jarhead, glowering general comes to mind. Think viruses and it’s a benign, bespectacled doctor in a white coat carrying a clipboard. Except that this “doctor” doesn’t take a pulse or soothe a fevered brow. He works with mice. Humans are an abstraction.
Of course, research is necessary, and there are many scientists dedicated to helping humanity who also have a love for it. But there’s also ego, ambition, a feverish need to prove a long-held theory, of getting there first, of besting one’s rivals. Not to mention claiming a patent and getting rich. There’s a look in the eyes of someone when everything takes a back seat to his getting a particular piece of a puzzle. I’ve seen it.
When I was in my thirties, I went to a gynecologist because of some issues I was having. After a sonogram he determined I had polycystic ovarian disease, which he admitted was actually a syndrome but had been designated a disease so it could be claimed on health insurance. I was put on low-dose birth-control pills for eighteen months, and a subsequent sonogram showed great improvement. The doctor then told me to come back again in a few months for a follow-up. On that visit he wanted blood, and gave the task to his nurse. I’ve donated blood and had blood drawn in the past without a problem, but for some reason on this day my body didn’t want to give it up. The nurse couldn’t find a vein. After three or so tries she called the doctor in. He couldn’t find a vein either. But he kept trying, determined to get the blood. He moved on to my other arm. Same story. His frustration grew. At some point I felt myself shutting down emotionally. I’m not afraid of needles, but maybe my nervous system was registering something amiss and communicating with my brain. I don’t know. But I felt detached. The nurse was upset, yet seemed afraid of her boss. He was driven. He had a look in his eyes that was totally focused on getting the blood. Finally, he gave up. At this point my arms looked like they belonged to a junkie. I asked the doctor to give me a note explaining why. He didn’t understand. “In case a cop thinks I’m using drugs,” I said. The wide-eyed nurse nodded her head in ready agreement. The doctor observed: “All you have to do is keep your sleeves rolled down.”
Correct. As long as I didn’t trip or faint or get mugged on the subway and come to the attention of the police. As long as I didn’t absentmindedly push my sleeves up at work or while walking past the nosy doorman or in front of the gossipy neighbor while in the basement doing laundry. Granted, a doctor’s note wouldn’t have much truck with either the doorman or neighbor, but it might prove helpful at my place of employment. The good doctor made a factual analysis completely disconnected to, um, life. About ten years later he had the stones to send me a letter inviting me to be part of a university study he was doing. In exchange I would receive free gynecological examinations. All this and heaven too! I declined.
Of course, scientists aren’t the only ones who become so driven they may block out everything else. How many of us have at one time or another neglected loved ones, our responsibilities, or our own health for something that seemed all important at the time, only for it to pale when we woke up to what we had lost and/or to what we had done—or failed to do—on the way? It’s a human weakness. But scientists have a sweet spot. It’s the white-coat-and-clipboard objective-observer motif, further enhanced by the relentless pounding into the public consciousness that science is always a purely intellectual exercise devoid of emotion. Which means there’s nothing to argue with. Which means: Don’t argue. And although that may meet a politician’s needs du jour, it’s but an intellectual yellow brick road leading to “experts” sitting safely behind a curtain.
Again, there are many dedicated scientists who have a true love and concern for humanity. Fran Kritz, a health policy reporter based in Washington, D.C., cited one in a 2019 NPR story:
Those on the side of destroying the stocks say new drugs and vaccines could be tested using gene fragments that have been sequenced from the live virus as well as on similar viruses like monkeypox. “There is no such thing as 100% certainty regarding the potential for inadvertent release,” says Dr. Jeffrey Duchin, a member of the board of the Infectious Diseases Society of America and the health officer for public health in Seattle & King County in Washington state. He has long supported destroying the stocks.
Clearly there is more than one way to “follow the science.”
I’d love to be a fly on the wall when certain whitecoats are chatting over cocktails in their cozy “members’ only” club. A club that’s closed to whitecoats who reject hubris. Whose members, so sure that their “work” comes before everything else, carry on as if they are above the pesky laws of mere mortals, finding illicit work-arounds for dangerous gain of function experiments. Should one of them, after a drink or two, suggest an actual admiration for the Nazi doctors and their unfettered access to scientific pursuit thanks to government-sanctioned use of humans as lab rats, surely there would be a noisy guffaw as the others spit out their merlot and single-malt scotch. But would the butler, innocently piping up: “Yeah, but what about envy?” be met with a demure smile and at least one raised eyebrow?