There are moments, while reading Virus Hunt, that you actually believe you’re turning the pages of a great mystery novel or psychological thriller. To some extent that’s by author Dorothy H. Crawford’s design. This is popular science (albeit popular science with a sophisticated edge). But the nature of the read also comes down to the nature of the subject matter: A disease that appeared seemingly out of nowhere 30 years ago and managed to cause paranoia, dissent, fear, and death.
How could we not be fascinated by where it came from and when it first snuck its way into the human bloodstream? How could we not be fascinated by the very nature of this destructive force?
Crawford opens the book with a discussion of HIV-1, the virus that most accept as the cause of AIDS. But, she adds, not everyone’s on board with that belief: Virologist Peter Duesberg was highly vocal in his conviction that HIV does not cause AIDS. Crawford writes that she mentions him because she believes that his convictions are misleading, perhaps even deadly, to those infected with HIV.
According to one study, conducted by researchers at Harvard University, nearly half a million South Africans died within a five year window because of misinformation about the virus. Many infected children were born during this time and, Crawford adds, their illness could have been prevented had their mothers been given access to important antiviral drugs. This AIDS denial cost South Africa alone an estimated 3.8 million person-years.
According to Crawford, Duesberg has been a fountain of misinformation throughout his career. That said, she points out that HIV is “a virus unlike any other”, noting that its ability to hide undetected for long periods of time is perhaps its greatest strength. It is a retrovirus, a group that infects a high number of vertebrate species but remains largely harmless while remaining in a natural host. It is the transfer of the retrovirus to one species to another that gives the retrovirus its potency. The human genome has numerous retroviruses lurking about in its structure, though scientists aren’t entirely sure what all of them are doing there.
Perhaps this accentuates Crawford’s assertion that there may be changes to HIV’s biography in the future, that there are perhaps hidden and unknown events in its life that will only come to light with further examination and question-positing. That said, the biography we have at the moment offers some fairly definitive answers as to how HIV arrived in the ’80s. But Virus Hunt is not about that arrival. Instead, it examines the long journey the virus took, by starting around 100 years before the first cases were identified and examining how it could have evolved into the killer it became.
Crawford points out that there were men who fell before the ’80s who might have been carrying the virus, who might have been diagnosed with AIDS today. She points to a Memphis man in his late 20 who died in1952. He had been diagnosed with viral pneumonia then fell ill with a series of infections over the course of the year. His autopsy provided evidence of infections that would today go hand-in-hand with AIDS patients.
Europe saw an outbreak in the ’70s of illnesses that, today, would also likely end with an HIV/AIDS diagnosis. The apparent ground zero for infections in Europe was Africa, as most that carried the symptoms were either from the continent or had visited there.
The origins of the disease are complicated by other factors, as well. The first HIV-1 positive case in the United States came from a Missouri teenager who never left the metro St. Louis area, was heterosexual, and never had a blood transfusion. He presented symptoms associated with HIV/AIDS and he died in 1969. A 1988 examination of tissue samples collected from his body suggested that the virus had been present on these shores since around 1968. But the results of those tests were eventually questioned and his case ultimately proved less than useful in further examining the history of the virus.
Several of these proto cases emerge in the pages of Virus Hunt, urging the reader forward on their chair, nearly shouting, “That must have been it!” But the answers are not always that easy and Crawford is quick to temper these apparent breakthroughs with examples of why such cases proved problematic. She is, of course, following the false leads and dead ends that scientists see in their research—the quest for a positive link that does not always come as soon or as easily as one might desire.
And there are further complications to the story: The connection between primates and human infections leads to the question of where the virus first made human contact and when. Evolutionary biologists became important not only in the telling of this story, but also for predictions about what might happen in the future. The final questions Crawford answers in the books pages, then, are how the virus spread from chimpanzees to humans and why the virus was able to spread in its new habitat.
Indeed, it is in these final chapters that Crawford does some of her most engaging writing. The passages can sometimes be harrowing in their complexity but never do they stretch the fabric of believability. In the end Virus Hunt is capable of surprising and informing the lay person as well as attracting the thoroughly scientific mind. If, by the end, you don’t feel as though you want to delve deeper into the world of evolutionary biology, you haven’t been paying close enough attention.