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For those of us who are nervous about the current anthrax outbreak, "Virus X" will not make very soothing bedtime reading. Dr. Ryan describes emerging plagues such as Ebola haemorrhagic fever, AIDS, and Junin fever in grim, gory, pathological detail. If that were not enough to keep his readers sleepless, the author spends the last few chapters theorizing on why new and perhaps deadlier plagues may soon emerge. In the final chapter, "Virus X - The Doomsday Scenario," he discusses the (thus far, theoretical) makeup of a virus that could cause the extinction of the human race.
Viruses already exist that are uniformly fatal to people, if not treated. Rabies is one of them, but luckily for us it has a rather clunky delivery system:
"The human rabies virus lives in a symbiotic cycle with bats, from which it is capable of infecting a wide variety of mammals, particularly foxes, coyotes, jackals, and rodents...The virus is programmed to infect the brain centers in the animal that induce uncontrollable rage, while also replicating in the salivary glands to best spread the contagion through the provoked frenzy of biting."
(The bad news is that out of the 5,000+ species of mammals on our planet, a thousand species are bats, and over two thousand species are rodents.)
Another almost uniformly fatal virus with a relatively inefficient delivery system is HIV-1.
Dr. Ryan asks the question, "Could such lethal agents [HIV-1, Ebola, rabies] ever take the second step, and become sufficiently contagious to infect all or virtually all of the human species?...the only route of contagion likely to prove universally threatening to humanity would be person-to-person spread by the respiratory route."
According to Dr. Ryan, Virus X - the (so far theoretical) uniformly lethal virus would have to invade our bodies through the lungs, survive immune system attacks while making its way through the blood stream, occupy its target organs, amplify itself, and then repeat the journey in reverse to infect someone else through a cough or a sneeze.
In one of the scariest passages in his book, the author describes a virus, the 'Sin nombre' hantavirus that almost accomplished all of the above steps:
"The importance of each step in this concatenation of genesis is illustrated by the 'Sin nombre' epidemic. It was the failure of the hantavirus [on its return journey to the lungs] to cross successfully from the lining of the capillaries to the adjacent air sacs---a distance of mere microns---that prevented a lethal pandemic from originating in the United States in 1993."
"Virus X" is a gripping, well-written book by an authority on infectious diseases, and you don't necessarily have to agree with the author's theory of 'the aggressive symbiont' to be enthralled, educated, and frightened. Those men and women in the moon-suits that we see every day now on T.V. are not going to go away, Lord bless them. Let's hope they can find a way to multiply as fast as the newly emerging viruses that Dr. Ryan sees infesting our future.
This author has written another five star book called, "The Forgotten Plague - How the Battle against Tuberculosis Was Won---and Lost" which I highly recommend.
If you are interested in further reading on emerging viruses, try "The Coming Plague - Newly Emerging Diseases in a World out of Balance" by Laurie Garrett.
We've been warned.
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British science journalist and physician Frank Ryan covers a lot of ground in this extensively researched and engagingly written trek into the world of emerging viruses. These viruses, indigenous to disturbed areas of the world, particularly in the tropics, are now being sprung loose to threaten humankind.
The first third of the book covers the story of the "Four Corners" hantavirus that jumped from deer mice to humans with fatal effect in the southwestern United States in 1993. This is science journalism at its best.
In the next third of the book Ryan takes us to the jungles of Africa and traces the origin and effect of the horrendously brutal Ebola virus. Again he tells an engaging story with a pictorial vividness. One is amazed at the courage and dedication of the health care workers and medical scientists who risked their lives to treat the sick and dying and to find the source of the deadly disease.
At the beginning of the last third of the book, Ryan reprises what we know about HIV, its origins, its spread, the political and social stupidities involved in its spread, and the prospects for combating this terror. Again he makes the personalities and the nature of their work come to life. Then beginning with "Chapter Sixteen: The Aggressive Symbiont," Dr. Ryan discusses in general and theoretically the evolutionary nature of viruses, where they came from, why they exist and what we can expect from them in the future. Most pointedly he explores the possibility of a doomsday virus that is simultaneously as easily spread as influenza and as deadly as Ebola.
In a sense this part of the book, originally published in 1996, predicts the SARS outbreak, but does not stop there. Ryan argues persuasively that, because of increased international travel, because of increased disturbance of natural environments, especially equatorial forests, and because of lack of sufficient preparedness, we are in mortal danger from a horrendous pandemic caused by an emerging virus, a virus he dubs "Virus X."
Part of his argument comes from the realization that every species on the planet harbors viruses. Most of these viruses exist in the host in a relatively benign manner. Ryan believes that virus and host are in a symbiotic relationship that has developed over the eons. The host shelters the virus while the virus, when shed into the environment, attacks other species with a deadly ferocity that protects the ecological position of the host. He calls this virus the "aggressive symbiont." It is here that Ryan's thesis is somewhat controversial.
For my part I think it is better to explain the deadly ferocity of an emerging virus by observing that the virus is killing its new host not to protect the old one but because it has not yet fine tuned its relationship so as not to kill the new host. Also the new host has not yet developed mechanisms for dealing with the virus to prevent it from doing egregious harm. Yet, it is valuable to see the virus as an "aggressive symbiont." Clearly the viruses (and other diseases) of the African rain forests are one of the reasons, as Ryan points out--perhaps the most important reason--that those jungles are still standing. It is clear that the AIDS virus that jumped from chimpanzees to humans would, in the pre-modern world, have the long-term effect of keeping humans from successfully usurping their territory. Perhaps it is best to say that viruses help to maintain the existing ecology.
However, to resolve this controversy will require predictive scenarios and experiments by scientists in the field. We should have a better understanding (and perhaps some more precise terminology) a few years down the road. For more information on symbiotic relationships see Ryan's recent and very excellent, Darwin's Blind Spot: Evolution Beyond Natural Selection (2002). Another excellent book on a closely related subject is Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Nature's Most Dangerous Creatures (2000) by Carl Zimmer where the emphasis is on the parasitic stage of symbiosis.
One of the most interesting ideas Ryan presents is that of "genomic intelligence." We are accustomed to thinking of intelligence in terms of computer chips or neurological growths, but perhaps the most important intelligence on this planet is of another kind, something like that of the ant colony or our immune system or that contained in the form and "behavior" of the virus. Consider, as Ryan does, that the virus has been co-evolving with its hosts, beginning with single-celled bacteria for perhaps a couple billion years or so. During this vast expanse of time it has "explored" the "landscape of the genome" (p. 226) and come to "understand" it so well that it is able to use the genome of virtually every creature on earth for its reproduction. Yet, the genome itself has its intelligence that has allowed it to continue to reproduce itself despite what the viruses are doing. This sort of intelligence cannot be discerned from examining the virus or the genetic code alone because such intelligence exists in concert with an environment at the molecular level of shapes and surfaces that is only expressed through the dynamics of growth. As in an ant colony there is no centralized "authority" where this intelligence exists; indeed the intelligence is an emergent property of the entity's interaction with its environment.
This book is therefore more than just a compelling report on the threat we face from emerging viruses, but an exploration of the evolutionary significance of our place within the viral environment. It is so well written, so well thought out and still so entirely pertinent to what is happening today that I would like to see Ryan revise it to include material on SARS and other outbreaks and to bring us up to date on what is now being done by the World Health Organization and other institutions to fight the grave dangers we face.
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on February 11, 2001
As someone only peripherally involved with epidemiology and public health, I found Ryan's book an entirely fascinating read, and nowhere near as sensationalist as the title might have implied. Not only for its suspenseful chronology of how the courage and tenacity of epi researchers has us closer to understanding these natural threats, but also for the countless "aha" moments it offers on how viruses actually live and work.
Ryan strikes a good balance between readability and credibility, using both layman's terms and (as far as I can tell with the help of the MD/epidemiologist in the family) accurate use of the appropriate lingo for his subject matter.
Basing his narrative on actual outbreaks of different types has helped Ryan create easily accessible self-contained sections that make the book an easy bedsider.
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on August 1, 1999
As a teacher who has a strange fascination with viruses, I use my summer to catch up on the latest books. While this book was in part a review of information presented in much more detail elsewhere (the endnotes are thorough with sources), the author's theory was new to me and kept me thinking for weeks. Even if you are quite familiar with the viruses discussed, I encourage you to read Dr. Ryan's conclusions.
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on June 9, 1999
to the world of emerging infectious diseases, and epidemic research. However, much of the information he presents can be found in other books considered "MUSTS" in public health or epi bookcases, for example "The Coming Plague" by Laurie Garrett. If you're curious, or just want a comprehensive but general look into the world of emerging infectious diseases, this is the book for you.
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If you've read The Coming Plague (or some of the other books like Dancing Matrix) Virus X is a very interesting exploration of why viruses do what they do. Ryan's theory of symbosis as the "natural" state for viruses seems to explain why viruses wreak so much havoc when they cross species. It was also a revelation to realize that every species (all multiple millions of them) carry their own viruses. That's one large potential pool of what could erupt at any time...
Defintely worth reading if you're interested in the subject.
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on August 21, 1998
This was a great book to arouse my curiousity in a new field for me. Dr. Ryan outlines some of the contemporary viruses that are making headlines, such as, Ebola, Hunta, and AIDS. The lethality of these viruses and others will intrigue and frighten you. However, Ryan will also bring viruses into a more down to earth light and explain why we need them as part of the circle of life. Its a detective, medical, and futuristic novel all wrapped up in one. Lastly, having little prior education or interest in this field, I have to give the book credit for not only keeping me interested, but on the edge of my seat. I couldn't put it down.
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on April 5, 1997
If you are looking for answers as to WHY mankind is beset by diseases and plagues, you will find an intreguing hypothesis here. In a nutshell, we are our own worst enemy.

Whenever people set about to conquer new lands, or change the landscape or ecosystem, whether intentionally (by building dams or cutting down forests) or unintentionally (as when nitrogen-rich urine from hog farms runs through groundwater into estuaries and causes the flourishing of disease-carrying algae blooms), this is likely to trigger the emergence of a new virus never before seen in humans.

This is because viruses cannot live alone; they have to have a symbiotic relationship with a host organism, like an insect, rodent, primate or human. Symbiosis, or coevolution, is where two species work together because both have something to gain from the relationship. We know that virus cannot live and replicate without a host. But what does the host have to gain from this? The idea is pretty radical: the virus helps its host defend its territory against rival species. It is as if the virus is trying to protect its "buddy", by attacking the invading species.

An example of this is many illnesses that afflict those who are in the process of cutting down the rainforest. Conversely, the replanting of forests in New England caused an explosion in the deer population, which spread Lyme disease to humans via the deer tick. When 600 Spaniards under Hernan Cortes attacked the Aztec civilization, a nation of millions, they lost the battle in terms of traditional warfare. However, the smallpox they brought with them to the New World devastated the native population. It can be said that the Europeans could never have conquered the New World if they hadn't had help from their virus buddies. Ryan gives many real life examples to prove his point that whenever we humans mess with nature's balance, we take a risk that the viruses will try to jump to a new host.

When the virus first encounters a new host, it attacks to kill. This is what we see in "emerging" viruses like Hantavirus, Lassa, and AIDS. After the most susceptible individuals die, what are left are the survivors, who will go on to coevolve with the virus. An example is the measles virus, which was extremely deadly when it first emerged during the time of the Roman Empire. Now we think of measles as a fairly minor illness. The bubonic plague was the scourge of Eurasians for centuries, now it only crops up occasionally in localized epidemics.

If you are looking for gruesome descriptions of real-life suffering and drama, you will find very little of that here. The first two-thirds of the book mostly gives a brief history of some of the notorious "new" diseases, like "Sin Nombre" Hantavirus, Ebola, and AIDS. Then we get his thesis, which is briefly outlined above.

I leave you with this quote, "Malaria and yellow fever...have probably done more to preserve the ecology of the rain forests than any aesthetic or moral scruple of man."
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VINE VOICEon February 19, 2004
This author gives a lot of information about how doctors with NOTHING, battling plagues in the wilds of Africa, are forced to improvise equipment.
He discusses what to look for in different diseases in Autopsies, safeguards, etc... He talks about docs performing autopsies outside on the ground, in the dirt, in the rain.
He discusses little known facts about projects USAMRIID has been working on (Counters to weaponized Ebola that the Russians have) and other little known facts like that the Ebola outbreak in Reston VA was Spread by Aerosol! It just happened not to be a strain that was easy to catch by humans (Even though lab workers ALL suddenly showed antibodies to Ebola in their blood, and several got "flu like symptoms" from it). I Was always lead to believe that the workers "Coincidently got the flu".. not true, they had a mild case of Ebola!
He talks about 1st world close calls, like the little girl returning to Britain on a mail plane with a doctor that was sick from Ebola (The Doc died).. even though she was in close physical contact with him, miraculously, she didn't catch it.. There have been SEVERAL of these close calls in several countries, the USA included.
He also discusses how diseases suddenly "pop up out of no where" as Asians and Africans move into more remote regions. They STILL do not know what animal host carries Ebola. Ebola is a HIGHLY mutable disease, which is why the Russians grabbed it for Bio-weapons... He predicts we'll see it many more times in the future.
For some reason, Americans think that "maybe a few hundred people have died from Ebola".. this is not true.. there have been several outbreaks in Africa, killing MANY THOUSANDS and forcing troops to quarentine whole cities.
***** Excellent book. A little dated now (Copyright 1997) but the info is solid. What makes it more believable it that the Trends he forecast in 1997 have come true.. like Species jumping viruses, Human/Bird viruses.
It's VERY easy to read. He gets technical, but he explains what the technical stuff means in such a way in the stories that before you realize it, you are reading the technical info with full comprehension without realizing that you learned it... Kinda makes you proud of yourself ;) What's more, you begin to anticipate what the Doctors in the stories should do... "Hey, he needs to run an ELIZA test from a Capture Assay! What idiot still uses a primitive fluorescent label? Look for the fixed antibody enzyme and then compare the color change bud!" *****
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on September 24, 2003
A highly informative book about viruses, how and why they are spread, in some cases their epidemiology and much about their evolution. Thankfully, very little is given over to speculation here, at least as compared to other books I've read on the subject. The information in this book is offered in a completely straightforward (and sometimes very boring) way. You will learn some fascinating new facts, but not have to suffer through scare tactics, just a yawn or two. The book put me to sleep a few times, but was still worth the read. The book contains some interesting viral history and global implications to ponder as well. No entertainment here though, it's just the facts.
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