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This Chicago Writer Warned Us 25 Years Ago

Editor's Note: Steve Eckardt, who owns the home I moved into two months ago, dropped this on my "desk" the other day and I was gobsmacked. He wrote it circa 1994 and published it in an obscure corner of the Internet where it is no longer to be found, at least in this form. I'd like to say the prescience is remarkable, but it turns out we were warned over and over that this was on the horizon.

Still, the themes struck here are so eerily familiar - warnings that the viruses under discussion are not simply like flus; the role of social interdependence in their deadly spread; the likelihood of originating from zoonotic transfer - that I thought Eckardt was pranking me; is this how he's been spending his time during the lockdown, I thought?

I've done the slightest bit of editing - adding a few commas here and there - but otherwise I've tried to leave it in its original form just for the sake of it. I'd say "enjoy," but instead you may find yourself weeping in a corner by the time you get to the end. Oh well!

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EXTERMINATION: NEITHER FIRE NOR WATER THIS TIME

By Steve Eckardt

If the four riders of the Apocalypse came spinning out of the turn at Arlington right now, Pestilence would be leading the field. Welcome to the new world of new, lethal viruses - pathogens of such unprecedented virulence that they are poised to wipe out all human life.

This is not a fantasy world, or even just a possible world. A simple review of the scientific literature on the subject will tell you that this is our world. (The best synopsis is an October 26, 1992 New Yorker article by Richard Preston, upon which much of this piece is based. Preston's work is in the process of being released as a Random House paperback entitled The Hot Zone.

Already there have been dozens of outbreaks - including several in the United States - that were contained essentially by freakish luck. Of course that's not to mention one of the viruses - the slow-acting HIV - which, though early in its spread, has yet to become the world's #2 cause of loss of life.

And the news gets worse: it's not just a few viruses, but dozens of them. And that number's almost certain to grow, for the conditions creating them are mushrooming.

And the worst of all, these potentially unstoppable pathogens are the direct, inescapable consequences of the existing international social order. There won't be a sudden rescue or a technological silver bullet. Only a fundamental social and economic restructuring of the world has a prayer of preserving human life on Earth - and it's already very late indeed.

Perhaps that's why the emergence of super-pathogens, along with the real causes of HIV and its relatives, has virtually escaped public notice.

Instead, an uninformed public is transfixed by AIDS - itself unexplained - and is driven to seek answers outside the natural sphere. Rightists pose the vengeful Sword of God, while disoriented leftists seek refuge in blaming allegedly escaped U.S. germ warfare agents.

But while conspiracy theories, scapegoats, and secret "cures" abound - straws grasped by those whose politics (whether left or right) can neither handle nor explain what is happening in the world - the HIV death toll mounts. And as the same time, worse - much worse - organisms teeter on the edge of an international pathogenic Hiroshima.

* * *

Strong evidence suggests that the casues of both HIV and its much more threatening cousins do indeed lie outside the realm of the normal ebb and flow of human pathogens. These super-pathogens are not like especially nasty flus. There are organisms that epidemiologists call "slate wipers" in regards to human life. They have mortality rates of up to 90% - and due to human social interdependence, 40% is considered sufficient for virtual extermination.

Take Ebola, for instance, perhaps the best-known of new, near-Andromeda Strain organisms. Here is an extremely aggressive virus that literally rots the body internally; necrotic discharges stream from every orifice, including the eyeballs and nipples. The walking dead spew putrefaction - any drop of which is sufficient to infect dozens more upon mere contact.

And like all super-virulent organisms, it acts quickly to exterminate the forces capable of opposing it: externally, the medical personnel; internally, the body's immune system.

In fact, Ebola is so virulent that a 1976 outbreak - a simultaneous emergence in 55 Zaïran villages - was probably prevented from international "slate-wiping" only by killing virtually every local - and doing it quickly. It wasn't the last-minute orders to seal the area - only one person made it out anyway - or the imminent halting of all air traffic from Zaire. Nor was it medical measures - there are none.

Radical social health measures may have helped, but they took the form of villagers isolating victims in single huts, pushing food and water to their door with long sticks, and then setting fire to the whole thing when signs of life appeared to cease inside. Meanwhile, moon-suited medical personnel rounded up every person who came in contact with the lone refugee, put them in extreme isolation, and "nuked" the spattered facility in which she perished.

* * *

All this would just be profoundly disturbing news, like discovery of a comet heading toward Earth, except for the suddenly obvious - and chilling - explanation of Ebola's and the other new viruses' virulence.

Ordinarily, diseases and their hosts co-evolve over eons, achieving a certain "healthy" (if occasionally fatal) balance. In other words, being wildly and quickly lethal is against the pathogen's interest since it eliminates the host on which it depends.

For example, if cold viruses were so virulent that they quickly choked off breathing, it would soon be over for both colds and humans. Or if mosquitoes' bites were like cobras', both the little bloodsuckers and their prey wouldn't be long for this world.

Unfortunately this exquisite balance - arrived at over a period of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years - no longer applies if a pathogen suddenly jumps from preying on its one co-evolving host species to an entirely new one.

Pathogens that do this - jump species - are referred to as "zoonotic" organisms. Such a pathogen, suddenly introduced to a species that is utterly bereft of defenses, poses spectacular dangers.

And that explains why the new viruses are so virulent and so lethal - Ebola, Lass, Marburg, HIV et al are all zoonotic organisms. They operate outside the framework of eons of evolution against a defenseless host - us.

* * *

But what is the source of these pathogens? And why are they emerging now?

Here lies the answer that makes such sudden - and frightening - sense. Ebola, Lassa, Rift Valley, Chikungunya, Kyasanur Forest, O'nyong-nyong, Simliki, HIV (or, if the naming pattern were followed, Kinshasa) are all products of the tropical rain forest or adjoining savanna.

According to Richard Preston, author of what will be the preeminent popular work on this subject (the aforementioned The Hot Zone), "when an ecosystem suffers degradation, many species die out and a few survivor-species have a population explosion. Viruses in a damaged ecosystem come under extreme selective pressure. Viruses are adaptable: they react to change and can mutate fast, and they can jump among species of hosts. As people enter the forest and clear it, viruses come out, carried in their survivor-hosts - rodents, insects, soft ticks - and the viruses meet Homo Sapiens."

Thus "the emergence of AIDS [and its cousins] appears to be a natural consequence of the ruin of the tropical biosphere. Unknown viruses are coming out of the equatorial wildernesses of the earth . . . as a result of the destruction of tropical habitats . . . I tend to think of rats leaving the ship." (Oct. 26, '92 New Yorker, p. 62)

Indeed, according to the August 6, 1993 Science, "four years ago, at a landmark meeting on emerging viruses, it became clear that there was growing evidence that pointed to . . . changing environments as the main cause of emerging infectious diseases." This evidence "made such an impression on the field that by 1992 a panel of infectious disease experts produced a report for the Institute of Medicine stating that 'environmental changes' probably account for most emerging disease.'"

But Preston's characterization of this as "the revenge of the rain forest" - however accurate and compelling - does not go far enough. Massive environmental destruction - earlier ravages of the tropics, for instance, or the ruination of the primeval North American ecosystem - is not a recent phenomenon.

Nor does the argument that "we've created new pathways for these viruses to travel rapidly from place to place" (virologist Stephen Mores, quoted in Science, ibid.) suffice. Massive population influxes both in and out of the rain forest are not truly recent either - take the 16th and 17th century kidnappings of over 40 million Africans for slavery, for instance.

What is a more recent phenomenon is the intensification of exploitative pressure on the Third World by the neo-imperialist powers.

First World-imposed austerity, privatization, soaring prices for finished goods, and plummeting prices for raw materials have created spectacularly grim conditions of starvation, ruination, and internecine butchery in the Third World. "We are the living dead," spoke the Mayan survivors of southern Mexico as they launched their Zapatista rebellion earlier this year. Things are likewise in Africa - the only continent in which the GNP has actually fallen in the last 10 years.

This economic war (what the Zapatistas called "the death sentence") has as its immediate medical consequences the elimination of health services and the weakening of human immune systems. Victims of malnutrition, of unchecked "normal" diseases, of broken and desperate communities are inviting targets for the viral "rats" fleeing the ruins of the rain forest.

So while a healthy male's risk of HIV infection by healthy health male from unprotected intercourse with a positive female is approximately one in 10,000, it's over 1,000 times greater for a poorly nourished male with untreated syphilis.

* * *

Were this the entire explanation it would be compelling enough: the reigning world economic order, by destroying Third World living standards and ecosystems, is creating zoonotic micro-monsters that threaten us all.

But it's even more fiendishly exquisite than that. Environmental devastation and human oppression may still not be sufficient conditions for the emergence of potentially-apocalyptic zoonotic organisms. After all, the European Conquest of the Americas accomplished that without producing a single Andromeda Strain (little comfort to the nearly 90% of the Mayan population that fell victim to smallpox).

It seems that the appearance of "slate-wipers" requires a long, intricate lineup of conditions to occur, like tumblers on a complex lock. (Of course, if it didn't, there'd be no one left to read or write this article.)

Something else is going on. Enter here the work of scientists summarized by Jay Gould in the March 15, 1993 Nation: according to Drs. Andrei Sakharov and Ernest Sternglass, the most widespread - and wildly underestimated - effect of low-level radiation is significant weakening of the human immune system. In fact, "effects of the [distant] Chernobyl accident were even apparent in small but statistically significant excess mortality in the United States in May 1986."

In short, low-level radiation has "lethal effects on the immune system."

And the fact is that atmosphere radiation from bomb tests, bomb-building, and nuclear power vector into the human population almost entirely through rain.

And where is the greatest amount of this? You guessed it: the very rain forests that are birthing - surprise! - the zoonotic slate-wipers.

Yes, HIV, Ebola, Marburg et al come from that area of Africa that "registered the highest levels in the world of strontium-90 [found] in human bone."

* * *

Super-pathogens may be the agents, the but profile - nuclear weapons, nuclear power, environmental pillage, Third World oppression, austerity - gives us the face of the real killer: the existing international and social order. Capitalism has become like the classic Ebola-infected zombie, spewing deadly putrefaction and contagion.

However horrifying this true life Andromeda Strain story may be - and it needs to be taken very seriously indeed - it means both that now everything has changed . . . and yet nothing has. Humanity's chances to survive - and it might well be a slim one - lies as ever in the conscious organization, agitation and education of the majority to take matters into their own hands - to act in their own interests, which are also the interests of humanity.

Of course, how to accomplish this has been the subject of decades of debate and experience. Those concerned about the fate of humanity should be advised - after reading Preston's book - to drop their fixation with the collapse of Stalinism and rethink both Old Masters (say Marx, Lenin, Trotsky) and New (Che, Mandela, Castro).

Or choose their own. For as Preston says, "the presence of international airports puts every virus on Earth within a day's flying time . . . " And if the prospect of human extinction doesn't pose the need for revolutionary change, what does?

Steve Eckardt is a Chicago-based freelance writer best known for his coverage of Mexcico. He thanks Stacy Gordon, M.D., for her assistance in preparing this article.

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Citations:

* Preston, "Crisis In The Hot Zone," The New Yorker.

* Preston, The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story.

* Crichton, The Andromeda Strain.

* Gould, "Chernobyl - The Hidden Tragedy," The Nation.

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Comments welcome.



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Posted on April 23, 2020


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