Virus Research

September 16, 1970

Report Outline
Recent Developments in Virology
Growth of Knowledge About Viruses
New Frontiers of Virus Research

Recent Developments in Virology

Virology as ‘Big Science’ of Twentieth Century

As far as science has been able to determine, only snakes, yeasts, fungi, mollusks and cone-bearing evergreens are immune to viruses. All other forms of life, from germs to blue whales, are subject to viral attack. Man may be most vulnerable of all. It has been estimated that these unimaginably tiny entities account for 60 per cent of all human illness. They can kill or maim on a massive scale—cause blindness, deafness, paralysis, heart trouble and mental defects. Moreover, medical researchers are coming to believe chat viruses cause some forms of cancer in people and that virus research will sooner or later reveal a cure.

Virologists are now in the forefront of the fight against disease—a position once held by bacteriologists. The sulfonamides discovered in the 1930s and the antibiotics developed in the 1940s have vastly reduced the danger of bacterial infections. It is viruses, which are largely resistant to chemical treatment, that now occupy center stage. Virology has become one of the “big” sciences of the 20th century. No other field of research holds more promise for the immediate benefit of mankind. The continuing study of viruses is sure to cast new light on other areas of scientific inquiry, including genetics, chemistry, evolution and the life process. Some scientists believe that viruses may have been the first form of life, created from lifeless chemicals through the action of radiation or electrical impulses in the primitive atmosphere. Other scientists describe viruses as an “evolutionary slip-up”—a backward step. They argue that viruses could not have reproduced into higher forms because there were no cells for them to replicate within.

A new understanding of viruses is coming perhaps none too soon. Joshua Lederberg, the Nobel laureate biologist, writes that viral infections are “a global time bomb against which we have few defenses.” Lederberg is especially concerned that viral infections might be let loose upon the earth, accidentally or otherwise, by nations that maintain arsenals of chemical and biological weapons. Even harmless viruses can mutate rapidly into deadly strains, as did the influenza virus which claimed 20 million lives throughout the world in 1918–19. Mutations occur faster than vaccines can be perfected to deal with them. With rare exception, the vaccine developed for one virus is ineffective against another.

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