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VIRUS GROUND ZERO: Stalking the Killer Viruses with the Centers for Disease Control
By Ed Regis
Simon & Schuster. 244 pp. $23

VIRUS X: Tracking the New Killer Plagues Out of the Present and Into the Future
By Frank Ryan
Little, Brown. 430 pp. $24.95

Go to the First Chapter of "Virus X"

Go to Chapter One

Battling an Outbreak Of Hype

By John Schwartz

Sunday, January 19, 1997; Page X01

In May 1995, the world looked to the teeming Zairian city of Kikwit, where the deadly Ebola virus was making another frightening appearance. First discovered in 1976, the elusive microbe had long figured prominently in the nightmares of virologists and global public health officials: In its most virulent attacks, the victims bleed from every orifice, and internal organs seem to melt away.

Ebola had become a viral superstar, propelled to fame by two 1994 bestsellers: The Hot Zone, by Richard Preston, and Pulitzer prize-winner Laurie Garrett's The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance. As the Kikwit outbreak hit the headlines, sensationalistic movies inspired by the books were appearing on television and in theaters. This multimedia wave raised the status of the Kikwit outbreak from hot news story to obsession; if you think sex sells, try doomsday.

The journalists who had helped crank up this fear machine became part of the circus: When the Kikwit outbreak began, Richard Preston's publicists called journalists around the country to arrange an interview conference call. Laurie Garrett traveled to Kikwit to write up the outbreak for Newsday and Vanity Fair. Garrett and Preston became commentators on TV news reports.

Now come two science books intended to correct some of that hype: Virus Ground Zero: Stalking the Killer Viruses With the Centers for Disease Control, by veteran science writer Ed Regis, and Frank Ryan's Virus X: Tracking the New Killer Plagues Out of the Present and Into the Future. Both books take us on a tour of modern virology, with starring roles for Ebola, hantavirus and of course HIV. Both would rather teach us than scare us, though they end up doing both.

Regis delights in deflating the scaremongers, and parodies the scare talk surrounding the Kikwit outbreak. Thanks to global air travel, he writes, "Your own home -- your very own neighborhood -- was only a day away from the Ebola virus!"

He then debunks. Such "hot" viruses as Ebola burn themselves out quickly, and are far from unstoppable. "A virus, including the Ebola virus, was not something that magically tunneled through physical barriers. A layer of plastic or rubber was all that was necessary to contain it, and household bleach was sufficient to kill it."

Regis's book also focuses on the heroes of virology: the men and women who identify and fight the nasties. As the book's title suggests, he gives the most ink to the scientists from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. But he shows that America has no monopoly on viral cowboys -- people who will go to superhuman effort to get the job done.

Sometimes they break the rules of public safety, and even common sense. Belgian scientist Guido van der Groen sweet talks a Federal Express clerk into letting him ship deadly tissue samples from the Kikwit outbreak to the CDC. The CDC's Lyle Conrad brings a victim of deadly Lassa fever into the United States from Africa via airplane in 1969, greatly expanding our understanding of the disease -- and earning a loud reprimand from the then-head of the CDC.

This swashbuckling science, Regis gushes, "was a mythic journey, a quest, one that partook of the legendary and the fabulous. . . . It was a romantic adventure in the classic sense."

Ryan's book is both broader and deeper. He refrains from the reporters' sometimes-overheated prose, and corrects their errors. But the compelling human stories seem to drag in the telling. Virus X comes alive when Ryan delves into the science, as when he gives a breathtaking step-by-step description of the process by which the CDC's Stuart Nichol was able to identify the hantavirus's genetic sequence even before the virus itself had been successfully cultured.

Little wonder, then, that Ryan really begins to cook as he draws sweeping scientific conclusions toward the end of the book. He writes that "viruses, so often thought to be nothing more than parasites, play a much wider role" in nature's grand plan. He takes on the vexing issue of why viruses that coexist in relative harmony with their natural hosts emerge to attack humans with such lethal force. Because a bug that wipes out its target population will become extinct itself, it's sound evolutionary strategy to reach an accommodation instead, and to "co-evolve" with the host over time. Ultimately, the bugs aren't out to kill us, Ryan explains: They just want to move in, like microscopic Kato Kaelins.

New hosts for the virus haven't had time to reach this accommodation, and so the initial encounters tend to be tragic. Yet once adapted, the viral guests aren't mere freeloaders: Ryan suggests that they become part of the host's armamentarium against turf invaders.

Because we are the invaders of so many remote corners of the Earth, we run into these "unwitting knights of nature. . . . Although not primarily designed to attack humanity, human exploitation and invasion of every ecological sphere has directed that aggression our way." Ryan ends with a call for better monitoring of and response to emerging diseases -- and, just to make sure we get the message, conjures up a hypothetical "virus X," a true doomsday bug as lethal as Ebola Zaire but with the airborne transmission abilities of measles. Brrrrrrrrrrr.

Regis, on the other hand, steadfastly refuses to fret, and takes on the increasingly popular apocalyptic notion that emerging diseases are somehow "Gaia's revenge" on humanity for overdevelopment. He scorns Preston's idea that "in a sense, the earth is mounting an immune response against the human species" and Garrett's notion that "the microbes were winning."

Many more Americans have been killed by lightning than the 700 Ebola deaths worldwide, yet "nobody spoke of lightning as 'the revenge of the thunderclouds,' even though there was abundant talk of Ebola as 'the revenge of the rain forest'," Regis sneers. This proliferation of new viral threats is an "illusion," Regis says. What's new are the tools of detection. "The better the CDC got at identifying the pathogens that caused age-old but hitherto unrecognized diseases, the more it looked as if scads of trailblazing new microbes were out there amassing themselves for attack, gathering their forces, and preparing to bring us 'the coming plague'."

As the scare talk about viruses mounted, Regis writes, "By almost every measure, the world's peoples were getting steadily healthier," with life expectancy rising and infant mortality rates dropping. "Outbreaks of health, however, were not considered 'news'." Both Regis and Ryan savage journalists for flocking to outbreak sites, adding to the general hysteria and getting in the way of the experts. Like the journalists, though, the virologists exhibit a creepy enthusiasm in the midst of the tragedy. Regis quotes French scientist Pierre Sureau, who explains that for those in his profession, "this is one of the greatest events in contemporary epidemiology. . . . Personally, I a.m. delighted to be in this place, and to participate in such an adventure."

Of the two new entries, Regis has given us the more readable -- even fun -- book. His focus is tighter, and he makes difficult material easy to read. How easy? My 9-year-old picked up the book for a bit and came up with some nervous questions about smallpox. Ryan's book is slower going. It is meticulously researched, yet large chunks of it seem to have been written in haste, with repetitive passages, terms that don't get explained until long after they have been introduced, and unpardonable lapses into jargon. (Really, was it necessary to use the word "supernatant"?) But at the end of the long slog, you've been presented with bracing ideas about coevolution, symbiosis and life's global web.

Journalism, and especially science journalism, is not just about getting the facts right. That in itself is a neat trick, and the daily corrections box shows that we don't always hit the mark. It's equally important that journalists get the tone right -- yes, to sound an alarm in the face of dangerous complacency, but also to avoid scaring the hell out of people when it's not called for. For those who want to find an antidote to virus hysteria, these two books provide a promising start.

John Schwartz is a science writer for The Washington Post.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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