1. Slow Virus | Virology Series
It had never occurred to me to ask what a virus is. In this series I want to dissect how we understand viruses, and explore our history with them.
I am not a virologist. But, recent events have motivated me to explore the field I thought I understood - at least clinically. I started by reading historical texts on the matter.
One such book is Peter Duesberg’s Inventing the AIDS Virus. Despite what you may think of Duesberg and his AIDS hypothesis, the first couple of chapters of this book is a trove of virology history - and has nothing to do with HIV or AIDS.
It is only appropriate that Duesberg be a source of information on the history of virology, as he played an integral role in it. As a fellow of the first virology lab in the US (UC Berkeley), and working under the first person (Stanley) awarded a Nobel Prize for ‘isolation’ of a virus, he has contributed a great deal to understanding of viral illness - or lack thereof.
The following is based on the ‘discovery’ of the slow virus, summarized from Duesberg’s work.
Shoot the Messenger
Since the isolation of the first virus, tobacco mosaic virus, many harmless viruses have been identified and blamed for human illness.
The drug-induced SMON epidemic of Japan was blamed on viruses
Researchers spent hundreds of years trying to find the microbe that caused Scurvy
…and hell was raised in order to find the microbe that caused Pellagra
This effort was in full swing during the polio epidemic. Researchers on the hunt for new variants of Poliovirus identified harmless passenger viruses - such as Coxsackievirus & Echovirus - which also colonize the GI tract.
Initially, these were classified as orphans - a virus without corresponding disease.
For a dive into what illness is and how we define it, check out this prior post:
Whatever your sentiment towards the contemporary model of viral illness, it is important to consider the intellectual framework that virologists of the 20th century worked with.
One component of this framework is as follows:
For any virus which causes disease, the illness will strike the victim soon after infection.
When a microbe infects a naive host, it will cause illness within days or weeks - if indeed it is a disease-causing microbe. In order to cause disease, the virus needs to replicate into numbers high enough to disrupt cellular and organ function.
Without tissue/organ dysfunction, there is no disease.
The critical factor here is how quickly the virus can replicate. If it is too slow, the immune system will have enough time to mount a response and neutralize the invader. By exponential growth the virus has a chance of overwhelming the body and causing illness.
This rate of growth is referred to as generation time.
For human illness, the generation time is on the scale of hours to days.
The fundamental problem is that once a virus is dormant, a healthy and intact immune system will not allow the virus to multiply to such an extent that it would threaten the host. It is in equilibrium with the host. For the virus to reactivate, first the immune system must be perturbed in some detrimental way.
Thus, the cause of illness is that which weakened immunity.
In the case of Hepatitis, which often occurs secondary to alcohol abuse or non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD - associated with consumption of fructose) - hepatitis virus grows abundantly and can easily be detected by molecular testing.
Is the culprit the hepatitis virus or the destruction of healthy liver & immunity as a result of lifestyle choices?
Another example is Herpes - which lays dormant and breaks out periodically as the immune system fluctuates seasonally.
In both cases, the weakened health of the host is the culprit - the virus is merely a manifestation. Ashes, not the spark.
To blame a disease on a virus which does not meet the above requirement for causing illness, one must invent a new property that allows the virus to violate this framework.
Slow virus is the original sin.
A ‘slow virus’ is credited with the natural ability to cause disease years after infection - termed a latent period - regardless of the state of immunity.
Daniel Carleton Gajdusek
Dr. Gajdusek was a virologist and pediatrician at the NIH for decades. In 1957, by sponsorship from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, Gajdusek took a trip to New Guinea where he was introduced to kuru disease.
Kuru is said to have only affected one group of people (Fore tribe) in New Guinea. Kuru derives from the Fore word kuria - to shake. Before Gajdusek, no outsider had ever described the disease.
Gajdusek reported that natives of Fore would perform ritual cannibalization of their relatives, including the consumption of their brains. He decided that the causative agent of kuru was transmitted by consuming brains.
He looked high and low for the virus that would be responsible.
Unfortunately, he could not find any signs of infection:
Not even changes in the cerebrospinal fluid of those who had ‘kuru’
Weirdly, even those with a weaker immunity had no greater risk of catching this ‘infection.’
Upon his return to the US, he was hired by the NIH to study neurologic disease. Simultaneously, a colleague in England was studying scrapie (a similar disease) in sheep. The Brit suggested the possibility of a ‘slow virus’ in the manifestation of disease. Gajdusek ran with it.
In his experiments with chimpanzees, he tried to transmit kuru in every conceivable way. He transfused blood, urine and cerebrospinal fluid from the sick to the chimps. Nothing happened to the chimps.
The chimps did not even catch kuru from eating the brains of the affected people. Weird, considering cannibalism was his claim for transmission to begin with.
In a last ditch effort, Gajdusek made a smoothie from the brains of kuru patients and injected the slurry directly into the brains of the chimps.
Shockingly…some monkeys developed some symptoms.
Who would have thought that directly injecting foreign goop into the brain would result in neurological symptoms? Crazy.
In these monkeys who developed some symptoms, no virus could be found - even under electron microscopy. However, he was convinced that he had found the vector for this virus…which he had not yet isolated.
Departure from Standards
Because Gajdusek could not ‘isolate’ virus in any of the classically accepted methods…he designed a new set of experiments. He just knew this was caused by a virus, so the formality of finding it was…just a formality.
Gajdusek designed a set of experiments in which he would treat the virus-containing solution in various ways. He hoped to glean some characteristics about the virus by attempting to destroy it. For example, what sort of treatment would kill the virus?
Unfortunately, this proved to be yet another setback for Gajdusek. No matter what he did to the solution, it still caused the same kuru-like symptoms when injected into the brains of the chimps. To add insult to injury, he could not identify any foreign genetic material in the kuru-affected brains.
All this lends itself to one obvious conclusion: there was no virus.
True to his pseudo-scientific training, he flipped his findings upside down. Gajdusek concluded that the virus which caused kuru was a new type of super-microbe. Something of an ‘unconventional’ virus.
This new virus acted slowly, since long periods of time elapsed between the act of cannibalism and onset of kuru - years to decades.
In the wake of the Polio epidemic, Gajdusek presented his hypothesis to a generation of scientists falling over themselves to work with these virus-hunters and all the grant funding they attracted. This happens all the time and in many specialties of medicine to this day.
The community was uncritical as he claimed that a similar virus also caused Creutzfeldt-Jakob, Alzheimer’s and other such degenerative diseases.
He was taken seriously…despite having no evidence.
Anthropologist Lyle Steadman investigated Gajdusek’s claims. Steadman spent two years in New Guinea…and often heard tales of cannibalism, but never found any evidence of it having occurred.
Gajdusek claimed that he had actual photographs, but he would not publish them because they ‘so offend the relatives of the people…’
Gajdusek never presented evidence that cannibalism had occurred amongst the Fore people, let alone isolated the viruses that caused the ensuing illness.
Conveniently, Gajdusek claims that both cannibalism and kuru ceased to exist within a few years after his 1957 trip. Yet, Gajdusek has shaped the mental framework of an entire generation of scientists and doctors.
Stupefying as it is revealing, Gajdusek was awarded the 1976 Nobel Prize in Medicine for this work. The NIH promoted Gajdusek to head the lab of CNS studies.
Stage is Set
In the wake of a series of rather unconvincing experiments, and his 1977 paper “Unconventional Viruses and the Origin and Disappearance of Kuru,” Gajdusek was ultimately proven to be wrong.
Kuru is now considered to be a prion disease - caused by misfolded proteins.
Unfortunately for clinical virology, the damage had been done.
The idea of a slow ‘unconventional’ virus that caused illness years-to-decades after infection…without any trace of its existence except via unreliable molecular testing…had made its way into the conscience of the scientific community.
The ensuing mess is too much to dissect now…but rest assured, it is quite the mess.
What Happened to Gajdusek?
For those interested in how this part of the story played out, check out the documentary by Bosse Lindquist called The Genius and the Boys.
Implications & Further Questions
To recap, a Nobel Prize winning virologist whose work is more slimy than the smoothies he injected into the brains of chimpanzees, set the stage for the evolution of clinical virology.
If decades of viral illness and treatment rest on these assumptions and pseudo-science…what else have we misunderstood?
How many other decorated virologists and doctors are charlatans?
What else in the field of virology & medicine is simply assumed to be true without confirmatory evidence?
As it turns out, the fiat economy that has permeated our society for decades has also infected the noblest of vocations.
Fiat Medicine has had its time in the sun…and it must now pay or default on its debt to society.
The arrogance of man knows no bounds. The potential damage is likewise unlimited.
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