Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Dr. Peters, Virus Hunter

I finished reading Virus Hunter: Thirty Years of Battling Hot Viruses Around the World by C. J. Peters and Mark Olshaker. (See my earlier post on the Ebola chapters.) The book is about the career of Dr. Peters, who has had a long and distinguished career tracking down emerging viral diseases and creating knowledge necessary to fight their outbreaks. Mark Olshaker is a professional writer. Since Dr. Peters previous publications seem to be in professional journals, Mr. Olshaker is probably the person we have to thank for the readability of this book

In my career I have had the opportunity to know many people who remind me of Dr. Peters -- people who practiced scientific medicine with great concern for their patients, but who also were scientists working in the field to increase medical and public health knowledge. Few however chose work as dangerous as that of Dr. Peters. Indeed, he was an inaugural researcher in the first Level 4 biohazard lab in the USA -- the lab designed for experiments with highly infectious agents that are lethal and for which there is no known therapy. He not only worked on the Ebola, Marburg and Lassa Hemorrhagic Fever viruses but also on hemorrhagic fever viruses in the U.S. southwest, Bolivian and Argentinian Hemorrhagic Fever viruses, Rift Valley Fever, and on Equine Encephalitis.

Peters was an outstanding undergraduate student who received his medical degree from Johns Hopkins -- one of America's great medical schools. He did his internship at Parkland Hospital in Dallas.
(He) served his residency in internal medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School. He developed an interest in tropical medicine and virology while serving five years as a research associate at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease intramural laboratory in Panama. Upon returning Stateside, he completed his fellowship in immunology at the Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation.
After the NIH closed Mid American Medical Research facility in Panama (and he completed his work in San Diego), Dr. Peters joined the army and was assigned to the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick, Maryland. This was a new organization when he joined it, and the first in the United States designed to handle the hotest disease agents. It was there that he was responsible for the Ebola outbreak in a monkey quarantine facility in Reston Virginia. While in that post he had management responsibilities and supervised a staff; he was still able to do field work in Africa.

He then moved to the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta where he headed the Special Pathogens Branch. Today (after the material published in the book) he continues to work as a virus hunter at the University of Texas Medical Branch pathology department. I think that this path of a physician researcher -- moving between academic institutions and various government departments -- is not unique to Dr. Peters. The number of highly trained and widely experienced experts is limited, and when starting a new program, a man with Dr. Peters' background would be strongly recruited. On the other hand, government programs and agencies come and go, and the best medical scientists may find his laboratory gone or unfunded on more than one occasion in his career.

In describing his career, the book provides a considerable amount of background on disease causing microorganisms, tests to identify them, and the mechanisms of disease. It also describes the emerging diseases on which he worked, and in so doing provides a history of a significant number of epidemics. The reader will come away from the book with a better understanding of emerging diseases, and a more frightening and I feel more realistic view of their threat to mankind.

Unusual in this kind of book, Peters describes some of the real problems that limit the experts in dealing with the problems of emerging viral diseases. They require a quick response, and government bureaucracies are not good at "quick" (although public health officials can be more flexible and responsive than most when there is a real sphincter tightening emergent epidemic). There are battles for turf (in this book sometimes between the two foremost experts in the world, each believing himself to be even better than the other). Sometimes a foreign doctor has to explain that his intentions are good to a poorly educated, traditional leader of a rural community. In the case of the Reston Ebola outbreak, Peters had to deal with an alphabet soup of federal regulators, as well as military and civilian agencies, but also with state agencies in Virginia and Maryland (in the U.S. federal system, states have reserved rights for aspects of public health).

In this book published in 1998, Peters writes a scenario of a major epidemic arising from a new disease in 1912. It is strangely prescient with respect to the current epidemic of Ebola.

For those who want to learn more about the virus hunters and the process of learning about a new disease and fighting a real outbreak, this is a very useful and readable book. It is also a good read. Dr. Peters has my greatest respect as a man who has repeatedly done the hard and the dangerous thing in the advance of medicine and science.


John Daly said...

"Ebola: experimental drug trials to go ahead in west Africa"

I heard Dr Fauci say there is reason to hope that a vaccine against Ebola will be effective. He is the head of the National Institute of Alergies and Infectious Diseases and should know. I also heard that two vaccines are sufficiently developed that they may be tested in the first quarter of 2015.

John Daly said...

It occurs to me that another virus hunter of comparable expertise in emerging diseases was Robert Shope. He died a few years ago, but you can read about his career here: