• Jim Mosher

The vaccines that may defer a Doomsday

Updated: May 24, 2019

Editor's Note: Written in early-February 2006 while I was editor of the Interlake Spectator, reading this piece again (quite randomly) got me to thinking about today's anti-vaccine movement. The anti-vaxers are endangering millions the world over. Parents are not vaccinating their children — and some of those unvaccinated children go on to develop diseases, such as measles, that had been eradicated many years ago.

Even in this environment of anti-science, molecular biologists, geneticists and other scientists — researchers and theoreticians — are on the job preparing for the next epidemic to prevent a pandemic.

The genetically engineered vaccine for H5N1 and Ebola saved the lives of millions.

A new limited-run series airs next week on National Geographic and Showcase channels. "Hot Zone" will focus on Ebola and, we sure hope, the groundbreaking work done at the National Virology Lab in Winnipeg, work led by its science director, Frank Plummer, will be at its heart.

Image of Ebola virus particles.

— Sourced at U.S. National Institutes of Health

During my brief sojourn at the University of Winnipeg in the early-80s, I dabbled in the study of molecular biology. It was a fascinating field. Back in the day — when I was hitting the books to understand the regulation of protein synthesis in Escherichia coli — recombinant DNA was all the buzz. These days, it’s old hat.

In just the last decade, we managed to map the entire human genome. We know the precise sequence of amino acids along the double helices of DNA in our chromosomes.

But that wealth of information doesn’t mean a hill of beans, unless we can decode just what the sequences of so-called bases do. A certain length of nucleotide bases may code for nothing. Another adjacent length may code for a protein.

I began thinking about my dabbling days at university after a research team at the University of Pittsburg produced a genetically engineered vaccine that’s reportedly effective in destroying the H5N1 avian flu virus. And they produced the vaccine in just 36 days. It usually takes month to produce a new vaccine, but the Pittsburgh team used a method that grows vaccine in human cells instead of in eggs.

The technique aside (I certainly don’t understand the molecular mechanics of it), the Pittsburgh development is especially good news — as more and more people, among them scientists, researchers and politicians, warn of a looming viral pandemic.

The great fear is that the avian flu virus will make the leap, mutating into a virus capable of being transmitted from human to human. Should that happen, its spread could be explosive — particularly given our very mobile, global society.

An exponential spread would, scientists tell us, result in a widespread epidemic, perhaps, a pandemic that could very well bring the world of human affairs to a crushing halt.

We have been assailed with predictions of a pandemic so devastating stock markets would crash and economies collapse. Then, the worst of worst-case scenarios invariably comes to pass ... in most of these tellings: the whole shooting match implodes.


Life as we know it ceases, and we become as lepers but wilfully separated from one another in the total devastation of social collapse.

I know this because I’ve been talking about it with a host of people who fear the worst.

I recall these scenarios being played out in the chilling tales of nuclear winter and the post-nuclear holocaust.

One doesn’t have to go very far into the abyss of infrastructure decay to begin to wonder. No groceries. No police. No gasoline for the car or diesel for the diesel generator. Eventually, no electricity, no natural gas.

The entire web of modernity crumbles.

In the sub-routines of the worst-case stuff are some challenging ethical dilemmas.

You’ve prepared but your neighbours haven’t. Your larder will keep you and your family fed for two months. But the Jardines down the street frittered away their money on beer and popcorn, neglecting the dire prognostications of the doom-and-gloomers.

Now the Jardines — the husband and wife, their four children — are near the end of their accidental rations. They need your help.

Do you dip into your reserves to help your neighbour? And, if you do, when does it end? What about the Smiths and the Wessons?

And suppose the avian flu does tilt pandemic. Will you hole up in your house, refusing to let anyone in? Will your fear — perhaps justified — of contracting the disease, push you ever deeper into isolation?

One thing seems clearer to me after my discussions with non-scientists. Nothing is cut and dried.

We cannot all retire to bomb shelters or germ-free fortresses we’ve constructed in the boonies.

Instead, we are at the mercy of a constantly-changing speck of protein molecules and nucelic acid, an infinitesimal shell of a thing — the virus. Our only hope? Our technologies and our knowledge ... and our compassion.

The U of Pittsburgh team is one of hundreds around the world looking to save us from our most pernicious and hardy predator ... the virus.

H5N1, it was feared, could become the most virulent virus to go pandemic. But there now seems hope that we have an answer, something to add to our biological war chest.

We hope that is the case. Still, if the avian flu will has taught us anything, it’s that we may well be bested by the smallest bit of biological life we know.

It’s humbling — and frightening. But we cannot let our fear or even the real consequences of a viral cataclysm to de-humanize us or desensitize us.

Our greatest assets remain intelligence and compassion.

Ironically, the American researchers in Pittsburgh used the common cold virus to ‘manufacture’ their new vaccine. The cold virus, while a bother, is immensely less virulent than H5N1, Ebola and HIV. But they still stubbornly refuse to be eliminated.

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