A virus which the mandarins of the Middle Kingdom wanted to keep under wraps has exposed some of the frailties of modern medicine and public health. The severe acute respiratory syndrome virus, like the Spanish flu, has spread panic in southeast Asia. Its incidence in India, by no means widespread, has also revealed that in this country, despite all the protestations of modernity, patients with infectious illnesses are treated in the same way as lepers were in medieval Europe. There are, however, more important scientific issues involved here than the sociological phenomenon just noted. It is clear that despite advances in medical science and sophisticated quarantine methods in a state like Singapore, the SARS virus spread menacingly and took many human lives. Its spread suggests that the natural immunity system of human beings is still incapable of withstanding a relatively new virus which produces symptoms similar to influenza and pneumonia. This can be put in another way too: viruses and germs are mutating in ways that are beyond the grasp of medical science. Advances in medicine and the common use of antibiotics and other drugs have eliminated many germs and viruses. But others, by the simple law of evolution, have emerged.
The scientific study of germs is a relatively new one. The major breakthrough in this field occurred in the twenty years between 1880 and 1900 and was pioneered by two teams led respectively by Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur. This was the beginning of what has come to be known as germ theory. Within these two decades, the germs responsible for anthrax, cholera, tuberculosis, tetanus, typhoid, pneumonia and many other infectious diseases were discovered. Modern medicine was thus poised on the threshold of a revolution. From the time of the earliest synthetic drugs to the antibiotic revolution and to the development of vaccination against contagious and killer infections, millions of lives have been saved and continue to be saved.
This should not lead to the conclusion that because of these developments, germs and viruses are on the road to destruction. Far from it. The discovery of two new strains of jaundice and the latest attack of SARS belie such optimism. Scientists working on germ theory will have to consider now how germs survive and even find ways to bypass or overcome new drugs that are being used to treat patients and to immunize humans. It would appear to the layman that microbes are also following the law of evolution and only those that are the fittest are surviving developments in modern science and medicine. A process of mutation and adaptability seems to be at work here as microbes and bacteria are learning to adjust to a changed environment. This could be nature’s way of maintaining a balance in the world and also to keep a control over the population. These are, of course, only hints and guesses. Further work in germ theory will enable scientists to unpack the mystery. But one thing seems evident: that germs of various kinds and human beings are caught in an unending battle for survival. Neither the beginning nor the end is known. There is only the process of survival.