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Pandemics in Perspective: Viruses and Man

An arranged compilation of my notes from the book: Viruses and Man, by F. M. Burnet (1953).

Viruses and Man, by F. M. Burnet (1953)

As I said in introductions to the first and second posts of this article series, Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year was probably the best book to begin this study, as it seems to cover the whole spectrum of situations and incidents that can arise in a pandemic, whilst presenting them in an accessibly narrative form. Following Defoe’s most insightful story, I decided to select one of the academic books in my collection to read next—that being, Viruses and Man, by F. M. Burnet (1953).

This is a book I happened to have in my personal library, purely due to having at one time searched eBay for Pelican books, picking ones on a whole variety of important subjects to add to my library. As Wikipedia states:

Pelican Books is a non-fiction imprint of Penguin Books. Founded in 1937, Pelican Books combined important topics with clear prose to create inexpensive paperbacks for a broad audience. Before being discontinued in 1984, Pelican Books published thousands of accessible, stimulating books covering a wide range of subjects from classical music to molecular biology to architecture.

In other words, these books were dirt cheap (most of them cost me £1.50, as eBay sellers tend to have multi-buy offers on them); and yet they serve to offer substantial introductions to particular subjects—this book being a good example.

Although the book is now almost 70 years old, I found that Viruses and Man offers an excellent scientific perspective on the subject; and at the least, is a good place to start. I took quite a few insightful notes from the book, each of which carrying some degree of relevance to the understanding of pandemics.

Amongst the insights I took from the book, I was surprised to find those concerning the subject of biowarfare in relation to virology; of which it didn’t even occur to me would be found in a 70 year old Pelican book on virology: this makes the author’s comments that much more striking—particularly since I actually have a couple of books on this theme, both of which are coming up soon in my reading sequence for this study on pandemics.

What follows is a selection of the notes I took from the book (being the somewhat paraphrasing of the details most relevant here), arranged into six main categories, each of which is divided by subheadings: in these headings can clearly be seen how the topic of “viruses and man” can help to provide a better perspective on pandemics.




The Definition of Virus

The capacity to multiply and retain virulence on simple non-living nutrients is the essence of the ‘isolation’ (i.e. identification) of a bacterium as the cause of an infectious disease.

Viruses are micro-organisms responsible for disease that are capable of growth only within a susceptible host; and are usually smaller than bacterium.

The designation of viruses as micro-organisms – i.e. a living entity – has been argued by some scientists as being premature. However, there is general agreement that viruses behave as if they were living organisms: for an individuality persisting generationally can be recognized among them; as well as the occurrence of mutation, including the influence of environmental factors on the survival of particular viruses and strains. In other words, an Evolution ‘in miniature’ can be seen in the characteristics and behaviour of viruses.

The Study of Virus

There is a contrast between the smallness of micro-organisms and the severity of the diseases they produce: this principle is even more striking with viruses because they are much smaller than bacteria and beyond the range of microscopes (hence electron microscopes are required to “see” viruses, via the pictures produced by this device).

In order to obtain a picture of a virus, it is necessary to purify it—that is, to separate it from the infected tissue; or from the fluids of extracts.

The Mutation of Virus

All viruses are capable of variation, i.e. mutation (changing “characteristics”): the same processes of reproduction, mutation, and survival of Evolution in higher forms of life—but speeded-up enormously (a mammalian million years is a viral week).
                Mutation in many directions is always occurring; and any change in the environment – e.g. the transfer of a virus from man to mouse/chick embryo (as is done by scientists) – creates the likeliness of a new variant replacing the former standard type as predominant form in the new population.

For every type of infectious disease is found differences in the disease-producing power of different ‘strains’ of the virus—hence diagrams of incidence require a “family of curves”, with each higher curve representing the more invasive strains (i.e. in terms of percentage of the population and age distribution).

Every virus studied has shown itself capable of giving rise to mutants of lower and higher virulence; and therefore, viruses must be regarded as the most liable and mutable of all living organisms.



A virus moves most readily through a community where circumstances are most favourable to it, i.e. poverty, crowding, low standards of personal hygiene, high environmental temperature.

People who are infected without symptoms are designated as a “sub-clinical case” or a “carrier”.


Mutual adaptation results when two species are living together as host and parasite for very long periods: in terms of virology, this means that a disease becomes milder, in the sense of rarely producing death or serious disability—but whilst retaining the power to be freely transferred to other hosts (exemplified by herpes): therefore, it can be assumed that the association between virus and man is a very old one.

Virus disease of man is a manifestation either of an almost stable equilibrium between the two species (i.e. parasite and host); or, of a temporary/accidental unstabilized association between them. Hence, the evolutionary problem concerns not the disease but the way in which the virus species originated and how it has survived.

When a virus is introduced into a small community that has no subsequent contact with the outside world, the epidemic will run its course and the virus disappears within a few weeks:—it is only in communities that are in commerce with the rest of the world that the infestation with common viruses is a normal and continuing condition.

To destroy a virus completely creates the danger of developing a non-immune population, i.e. represented by the threat of the virus still persisting elsewhere, which could therefore be reintroduced to a vulnerable population.


Modes of Infection

The most important mode of natural infection is by the inhalation of droplets of infected saliva, which have been dispersed into the air by coughing, sneezing, or talking. The next most important mode of transferral to new hosts is by the dried secretions on handkerchiefs and bedclothes being dispersed into the air (i.e. dust particles).
                Intestinal viruses are those spread by faecally contaminated material taken in through the mouth. Skin viruses are via the direct infection of minor injuries.
                Insect-mediated viruses add an additional complication in that they are a parasite of monkeys or birds; therefore much more attention must be paid to the natural host in order to understand the incidence of the disease.

Patterns of Incidence

If the incidence of a virus is concentrated on young adults or older people, then it is certainly one that has not previously been present in the community. If the incidence is similar to measles – i.e. in which adults are avoided – it is a less virulent type of a previously widespread virus.

The incidence of infectious disease is highly disproportionate between public and private schools, i.e. higher and lower socio-economic status.


Rules for Elimination

The general rules concerning the elimination of a virus are, firstly, that the disease always, or virtually always, takes on an easily recognizable form; and secondly, that it is regarded as so dangerous that the public will submit to the necessary inconveniences of quarantine and compulsory treatment.

Methods of Immunization

There are four methods of artificial immunization: (1) to produce an infection by administering the living virus that causes the disease, but in a way less likely to produce severe illness; (2) to infect with a  living virus that has a much lower virulence than the one causing the disease; (3) to infect with the dead bodies of virus particles, in an amount sufficient to act as an adequate stimulus for anti-body production; (4) by giving a dose of antibody (in the form of serum) taken from a recovered patient; followed by a dose of the virus of an amount such that it is not quite completely neutralized by the antibody, so that it will multiply sufficiently enough to produce fresh antibodies and persisting immunity.


Vaccines are produced and harvested by inoculating hosts, followed by a period of incubation.

Generally, the virulence of a virus for man is reduced by growing it for many generations in the cells of another animal: from this is produced an attenuated variant of the virus, which is then used for immunization.

The general rule of vaccination is to insist on its regularity, i.e. periodic revaccination—the response (in the patient) to which gives a measure of immunity: those completely susceptible to the virus and who are previously unvaccinated will have a slow response (i.e. delayed appearance of symptoms and blisters); whereas those who have been vaccinated several times against the virus will have a fast response (i.e. within a day)—which represents an ‘immune reaction’.


The Common Cold

Isolation from civilization for long periods has proven to be more informative of the common cold than laboratory experiments have been:
                During an American investigation of an Arctic island – i.e. a community that is completely isolated from the rest of the world – the investigators found that colds broke out soon after the arrival of the first ship of summer (i.e. from outside), spread wildly through the community, and disappeared before winter.
                Arctic expeditions tell the same story: for the travellers, the common cold vanishes after being a month absent from civilization; and it remains gone for the duration of the expedition. A common embellishment of these travellers’ tales is the story that the opening of a case of clothes or blankets was followed by an outbreak of colds.
                Thus after a sufficient period of isolation, any small group of men will rid themselves of any cold viruses present, and subsequently become progressively more and more susceptible to infection if they come in contact with a cold virus. In non-isolated communities, individuals are reinfected with cold viruses at frequent intervals, mostly without suffering any symptoms: this constant infection maintains a state of partial immunity against cold viruses (i.e. against their power to produce symptoms)—which makes a menace to the highly susceptible person.
                The common cold is thus an inseparable concomitant of urban existence; and furthermore, it is difficult to study because it only infects humans.


The history of polio suggests that its incidence increases concomitantly with the improvement in the standard of living and personal hygiene.


Influenza is a virus prone to mutation of many types, including changes in immunological character: these inheritable changes are never so great as to render the A-strain unrecognizable, or convert it to the B-strain; but are sufficient enough to allow an immune animal to be susceptible to the changed form. Hence, the A-strain needs to be undergoing a steady sequence of changes in order to survive as an agent of human disease—therefore mutability is an essential requirement for its survival as a species.

1918 Spanish Flu

The 1918-1919 pandemic is unprecedented in occurrence: a type of epidemic that had never been recorded in history. The initiating circumstances were unknown; and the situation in Europe created by World War I was blamed—yet there was no influenza in World War II until 1949, despite the far greater social disorganization that occurred during that war. Therefore, we are left to hypothesise that it was due to an accident of mutation or recombination.
                Many or most of the deaths were not due to the virus directly but to the damage it caused in the lungs, which allowed various bacteria to flourish there.

In the Event of a New 1918-Type Pandemic

In order to minimize the effects of an imminent threat of a new pandemic of the 1918 type, the following could be done: (a) quarantine measures would undoubtedly be made, but would at best slow down the movement of epidemic at certain points; (b) virologists and bacteriologists would provide information (concerning the virus type and associated bacteria) as rapidly as possible; and as the epidemic develops, there would be constant watch for mutational changes in the virus; (c) vaccines of the pandemic strain would be produced as soon as possible—but it is unlikely they would be produced in time to use in areas not yet reached by the pandemic; (d) since it is likely that new types of the virus will arise during the course of the pandemic, the vaccines will be accordingly modified.

Yellow Fever

Yellow fever is an unsolved riddle, in the fact that it never reached the east coast of Africa; nor did it spread to Asia and the East Indies—despite that the mosquito is everywhere in the tropics; and monkeys (i.e. carriers) are in much of that area; while it often had disastrous effects on America and Europe since the 16th century (i.e. during the imperialistic adventures of the great maritime powers).


Mouse-Pox is considered to be a ‘natural’ disease; yet it only occurs in lab mice—thus its origin is unknown.


The Weaponization of Scientific Study

The weaponization of scientific study has continued from astronomy, buy which the study of stars was utilized for the production of atomic weapons; to virology, by which the study of viruses poses enormously sinister implications for the future: just as the study of atomic reactions led to the creation of the hydrogen bomb, the ability to produce an epidemic amongst an enemy – i.e. whilst allies are rendered harmless by immunization – has now been made possible.

The Weaponization of Biology

‘Biological research’ and ‘medical research’ were practically synonymous until World War II: the objective in studying bacteriology was to prevent and cure infectious disease; and the justification for animal experimentation is physiology was similarly to be found in its practise of curative medicine.
                This has gradually changed since 1939: the greatest application of enzyme chemistry is not in the treatment of disease, but in the synthesis of one group of specific enzyme poisons, i.e. nerve-gases—and with every new advance in the understanding of the chemistry of the vital enzyme actions, there automatically arises new possibilities for the modulation of tailor-made, custom-built specific poisons for those enzymes, i.e. new war gases.
                Bacterial warfare was mostly thought of at the elementary level—but now, the laboratory learns the conditions for a bacterium’s maximum virulence; and how it can become resistant to a drug without losing its virulence: hence the potentialities for bacterial warfare increase with each advance.

The Ultimate Weapon

The insane logic of power politics sees the ultimate weapon in a virus disease which will spread through and destroy those unwilling to accept domination; but spare those who have submitted:—hence there is no visible reason why the continuation of the current type of research would not make possible the production of such a weapon in 20-30 years [stated in 1953]. The initiation of the spread of a new hyper-virulent virus disease as an act of war is not a threat of the immediate future; but is as implicit in the lines of present day virus research as the atomic bomb was in 1939.
                Hence it is futile for a biologist or atomic physicist to underline the potentialities of his science for war—which in the hands of modern science, is an intolerable solution to the problem of power.
                There are no other approaches to effective knowledge than scientific method—and only knowledge can counter evil that makes use of knowledge.

Back cover of the book, effectively highlighting the author’s credentials (dude was knighted!)

Author: Simon Kanzen

I value reading substantial literature, enjoy thought-provoking entertainment, and above all, I think every day. With Stepping Stones, I develop my thoughts in writing and share references to relevant media, intending for other readers and thinkers to find these writings useful.

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