... Conversations with People at the Leading Edgesm.

   Viruses v Humans — a fair fight? 


C.J. Peters


... has worked with infectious diseases for three decades with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the U.S. Army and the U.S. Public Health Service. He was the Chief of Special Pathogens at the CDC from 1992 to 2000. He was formerly the Chief of the Disease Assessment Division at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) which established The C.J. Peters Award in his honor. The Award says, in part, "In the inception and granting of this award, we honor Colonel C.J. Peters, Medical Corps, a brilliant and innovative scientist, scholar and physician...whose work is a lesson not only in science, but in humanity". Dr. Peters was the head of the unit that contained the Ebola virus outbreak in Reston, Virginia, about which The Hot Zone was written. Dr. Peters co-authored Virus Hunter. He is now at the University of Texas Medical Branch.


There is a real danger -- right now -- that a viral epidemic could spread worldwide, virtually overnight. Unsuspecting humans traveling from one part of the globe to another could easily be the carriers. A pandemic could come from a familiar virus we've lulled ourselves into thinking is conquered. Or it could come from one of a host of new viruses which are emerging worldwide. Even more chilling is the danger that terrorists might use biological agents to devastating effect. It wouldn't be hard.

Dr. C.J. Peters, Chief of Special Pathogens at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, is no alarmist. But he worries that people think viruses will somehow "just go away" with the advance of medical science and technology. The AIDS epidemic has taught us such assumptions are dead wrong. There are people alive today who remember when a worldwide influenza outbreak killed more people in one year -- 1918 -- than any other single event of the twentieth century (including two World Wars, the Holocaust and Stalin's purges). Today, infectious diseases are the number one killers in the world. Even when a virus is not lethal or only affects other species, it can have catastrophic effects on a community's life, economy and public welfare.

Dr. Peters is America's leading virus hunter. He headed the unit that contained the outbreak of the Ebola virus in Reston, Virginia. It's just one of the very scary stories he tells in his riveting book Virus Hunter. He compares hunting viruses to being a homicide detective, citing the ability to listen as the epidemiologist's greatest single talent. Get the right clues and gather the samples systematically. Then the lab can solve the mystery. The disease itself is the best teacher. It takes more than hood lines, space suits and blowers to make a safe working environment. "You need people with the understanding, preparation and experience to conduct themselves effectively in the presence of potential killers."

Of all the sophisticated medical techniques in use today, simple barrier nursing -- always wearing a mask, gown and glove while attending the sick -- is among the most important.

Be Prepared sums up Dr. Peters' call. "We can't afford to be arrogant as a species."

   [This Program was recorded in 1997 before an invited audience at The Commerce Club in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.]

Edited Excerpts of the Conversation:



Conversation 1


Dr. C.J. Peters, Chief of Special Pathogens at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), describes the nature of viruses to Paula Gordon and Bill Russell. Virus' reproductive strategy facilitates them jumping successfully from one species to another. Viruses do not necessarily make their host "sick" but they cannot grow independently. They must infect and take over their host cell. A virus may not be at all harmful in one species but great troublemakers in another.



Conversation 2

It's a big mistake to think humans are the center of the universe and will always be here. Dr. Peters talks about the complex relationships among and between species, amplified now that humans are causing a host of rapid changes.

We stopped looking at infections in the 1960's when multiple antibiotics were developed. Then we seriously eroded antibioticsâ effectiveness and weâre beginning to pay attention again.

We're also learning that global ecological changes create opportunities for viruses. CDC is responding with "surveillance" which focuses the expertise of people from a number of disciplines -- microbiology, epidemiology, sociology and so forth -- on extraordinarily complex challenges.

Tracking down the principles of a virus combines old fashioned detective techniques and sophisticated modern technology. Researchers are hampered by the sharp decline in autopsies in America.



Conversation 3

Megacities worldwide pose a "terrible problem." Dr. Peters describes the complex interactions of people, plants, environment, animals, insects, weather and rapid change. He is concerned that we are not thinking about long-term problems, those of the next 50 years.

He describes our transition from hunter-gatherers -- when there were not enough of us in any one place to sustain viruses' needs -- to the agricultural age which allowed people to live in concentrated areas with animals we were domesticating at the same time. Viruses from those animals (like measles) jumped to humans. Humans carried them across the planet as we spread out.


Conversation 4

Dr. Peters talks about his 30 years chasing hot viruses with new viruses emerging all the time. He tells the story of the Ebola virus and warns of the potentially deadly combination of rapid human travel and viruses which can be carried by organisms as common as mosquitoes.

Tracking down a disease is extremely complicated with complex causes. Entire ecologies may be involved. Dr. Peters describes how the upcoming El Nino effect may work with wind, weather, and crops to greatly benefit rodents who carry hantavirus. ãThese things are too complex for us to get a handle on yet.



Conversation 5

Dr. Peters describes biological terrorism as"cheap, easy and take less expertise than is needed for nuclear terrorism." And biological weapons will work. We have not yet found a balance between being unduly alarmed and the need for the very real threats to hold our attention for longer than a "sound bite." We're beginning to help integrate first responders -- fire departments, police and civilian physicians.

Dr. Peters describes the jolt Desert Storm gave the military. He's concerned people will let a research capability wither, then demand to have a solution now, regardless of the price.


Conversation 6

We do have a problem. At the same time, people should sleep at night. But when you wake up, you should worry a little. Then get insurance, starting with good surveillance, worldwide. There is nothing local about any of these diseases. "They may be local today, tomorrow they won't be."



Related Links:

C.J. Peters' book Virus Hunter is published by Anchor/Doubleday.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


The Commerce Club graciously provided its Library for this program. We thank them.

A group of members of The Commerce Club who are retired and young members who also belong to The Club's Commerce Society joined us as we recorded. After they observed our conversation with Dr. Peters, these guests also had a chance to talk with Dr. Peters. We're pleased all of them joined us.

We are grateful to Susan Peters who arrived at The Commerce Club, packed and ready to go directly to Hartsfield International Airport. We hope her academic meeting in Europe was as enlightening for her as our conversation with her husband was for us.

Our thanks to Anchor Books/Doubleday for bringing Dr. Peters' book Virus Hunters to our attention.



Quick buttons

© 2008  The Paula Gordon Show.
All materials contained on this website are copyrighted by The Paula Gordon Show and may not be used for any commercial purpose without the express, written consent of Paula Gordon.  Non-commercial use is permitted and encouraged provided that credit is given to The Paula Gordon Show, appropriate urls cited, links are provided where possible and meaning is not altered by editing.