D. Carleton Gajdusek: Slow Dance with the Virus

Interviewed March 1986 by Bill Moseley

The home of Daniel Carleton Gajdusek is a three-story colonial that was a Civil War Union Army outpost. It sits on a knoll overlooking Frederick, Maryland. Fruit trees, fields, and an Olympic-size swimming pool adorn its hundred-odd acres. Inside, a dozen of Gajdusek's adopted children are playing. Several New Guinea boys cut one another's hair while listening to a Doors tape on their portable stereo. After some children cook dinner, it begins to snow, and the children, who have never before seen snow, bundle up and run outside, forgetting only their shoes.

Carleton Gajdusek himself was an unconventional and precocious child. When he was a boy in Yonkers, New York, where he was born in 1923, he stenciled 13 names from Paul De Kruif's chronicle of pioneering bacteriologists, The Microbe Hunters, on the stairs leading to his attic laboratory--illustrious predecessors he would follow in his relentless pursuit of deadly, mind-destroying viruses. Years later Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet, the Australian immunologist and Nobel laureate, described Gajdusek as a near-genius with the emotional maturity of a fifteen-year-old. "He is completely self-centered, thick-skinned, and inconsiderate but equally won't let danger, physical difficulty, or other people's feelings interfere in the least with what he wants to do. He apparently has no interest in women but an almost obsessional interest in children, none whatsoever in clothes or cleanliness; and he can live cheerfully in a slum or grassy hut." Add to that an almost pathological aversion to the press and the fact that he has single-handedly raised 34 children from primitive Micronesian and New Guinean villages, and a rough picture emerges of a man who has taken life to the freak level of intellect and action.

Gajdusek's education included the University of Rochester and Harvard Medical School, with clinical training at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City, Cincinnati Children's Hospital, and Children's Hospital in Boston. At twenty-five, Gajdusek was appointed a Senior Fellow of the National Research Council at the California Institute of Technology, and about a year later, in 1949, was appointed Research Fellow at Harvard and a Senior Fellow at the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.

After investigating infectious and childhood diseases in Europe, South and Central America, and Asia, Gajdusek joined Macfarlane Burnet in Melbourne, Australia, where he concentrated on virus genetics and auto-immunity. While he continued his studies of child development, behavior, and disease patterns in primitive cultures, he worked among the aborigines and the Melanesian peoples of New Guinea and New Britain.

On his second trip to New Guinea, in 1957, Gajdusek met Vin Zigas, a local doctor who introduced him to kuru, a baffling nervous-system disease that was epidemic among the Fore, a cannibal tribe of the Highlands. What followed was a story of medical detective work worthy of Sherlock Holmes. As Gajdusek and his small group plumbed the mysteries of kuru, it became apparent that this virus had extraordinary properties: A seemingly infectious disease, kuru produced no immune response in its victims and could lie dormant for upward of several decades before its symptoms fatally ravaged its host. The Fore victims were eventually unable to stand and usually died within a year of their first symptoms, their brains scoured by lesions.

During his investigation Gajdusek had to contend with the superstitions, cannibalism, and almost indecipherable languages of the Fore and ten other cultural and linguistic groups that were afflicted with kuru. There were also rainy seasons, poisonous flora and fauna, inadequate medical supplies and equipment, and the constant pressure of the Australian medical establishment to replace him with one of its own. But he pressed on, often performing autopsies with the "help" of the victims' relatives. He compensated them for the disruptions in their traditional mortuary practices with such trade items as blankets, matches, knives, and axes. He packed off kuru-ridden brains and organ samples to Melbourne and to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, for analyses. Gajdusek wrote: "Kuru is a most difficult thing to abandon; it is almost too good a problem."

In 1958 Gajdusek returned to the United States to become chief of a section studying child growth and development disease patterns in primitive cultures, at NlH's National Institute of Neurological Disease and Blindness. There he attempted to transmit kuru to small lab animals and chimpanzees. William Hadlow, a veterinarian who devoted his life to trying to elucidate the pathogenesis of scrapie (an infectious nervous-system disease common to sheep and similar to kuru), suggested to Gajdusek the possibility of very prolonged incubation periods in animals inoculated with bacteria-free, homogenized brain tissue from kuru victims. The chimps contracted it after about two years of incubation; so kuru was indeed transmissible. This finding was the linchpin in proving that these diseases could lie dormant for long periods and could cause chronic noninflammatory disease in man. Slow virus infections are now held accountable for such degenerative diseases of the central nervous system as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD, which killed choreographer George Balanchine); some other presenile dementias; slow, delayed, and rubella encephalopathies (brain diseases)--and also AIDS. It was for this research on the origin and development of these diseases--proving they are infectious--that Gajdusek was awarded the Nobel prize in medicine or physiology in 1976. He is now chief of the Laboratory of Central Nervous System Studies (including the Laboratory of Slow, Latent and Temperate Virus Infections) at NIH.

Gajdusek is also nearly impossible to keep up with, let alone pin down. He is invariably on a field trip to New Guinea, delivering a lecture in Toronto, or attending a conference in Paris, Bombay, or Beijing. After a long chase and lying in wait for him in a Washington, DC, hotel, interviewer Bill Moseley finally received a call announcing that the virologist could spare a few hours that afternoon. Moseley tore out to Fort Detrick in Frederick, Maryland, the Army base that houses the National Cancer Institute--the Frederick Cancer Research Facility. Soon Gajdusek walked into the office, accompanied by one of his New Guinean sons, who stood during the entire interview. The session, attended by his extended family, concluded after dinner at Gajdusek's home.

Later Moseley realized that he'd forgotten to ask one question: Did he think that the virus responsible for AIDS was "evil"? In response to Moseley's letter, Gajdusek wrote, in part: "Your question, from my point of view, is incomprehensible and to some extent sadly amusing. I see the plagues and afflictions of mankind mostly as the inevitability of the natural consequence of the `order of things'--animate and inanimate. Overpopulation, vast famines and starvation, even war and holocaust I tend to look at as I do tidal waves, earthquakes, glaciation, and other geophysical and astronomical events, with no real moral judgment as to how they affect people favorably or unfavorably. I have never considered [that] the concepts of good or evil had anything to do with the occurrence of these phenomena. I have preferred to look for their causes and outcomes in the inevitable lack of commensurability of the neurobiological structure of man and the erratic biological and geophysiological pressures he is exposed to. We need to place no credit or blame on the `awesome order' that has resulted from `chaos in the universe.'"

OMNI

How would you describe the press coverage on kuru?

Gajdusek

It wasn't so bad, but nobody in science would ever have called it "laughing death." Much to my horror, Public Health Service politicians in Papua New Guinea gave the manuscripts on kuru to reporters before they were to come out in medical journals. Our reports talked a lot about euphoria and risis sardonicus, which happens in tetanus; victims are often caught with a fixed grimace, apparently grinning. Well, kuru doesn't quite cause a risis sardonicus. The same part of the brain is involved but in a different way. You smile and can't relax it, and it is slow in disappearing--it's like a telephone ringing after you hang it up and you want it to be quiet. Or when you try to frown, you smile instead--the brain circuitry that should have turned on a frown turns on a smile.

This pathological laughter isn't a major part of kuru, but laughing death was a million-dollar journalistic term. It made headlines overnight. We were disturbed by that.

OMNI

Didn't the publicity help raise more money for your work?

Gajdusek

No. We had more money than we had scientists willing to work. We never had financial problems in the bush, where there's no need for currency. Our problem was political interference. Suppose we've been working in Southeast Asia, Asia, and Oceania and no one in government objects. When The Times of London says Gajdusek was talking about NIH work in a certain country, that item gets clipped by the country's embassy. They send it to the foreign ministry. There's a national inquiry. Now, what the hell are the Americans doing in our country? they ask. As long as the world doesn't know it, it's not politically dangerous to people in power.

OMNI

Is there any value, then, in the press?

Gajdusek

I read outdated press extensively--all the things I claim I don't read. I love picking up a 1930 New Yorker. I respect newswriting ps a comment and insight into a culture. But to play a ridiculous game of waiting for the next chapter is like reading War and Peace in installments by an anonymous author who has little likelihood of being a Tolstoy or Dostoyevski. That's despicable. Right now, if you showed me a Time or Life magazine about the original Khomeini takeover, I'd read it. Speaking some Farsi, having worked in Iran, and having housed many Iranians, I would look at these events historically and ethnographically in the perspective of my current knowledge.

All creative scientists have new ideas and data that they work through every day. Often, after many experiments and preliminary progress reports, analyses, or laboratory trials, they are no more sure of their final conclusions than a composer who is one third finished with a work. Is there a composer on the face of the earth who would want to show any bit of an unfinished work to anyone but a few chosen friends and critics? Or want it publicly performed before he finished it?

If anyone wished to destroy a work of music or painting at its inception, all he'd have to do is come in every day and ask the artist for a picture of how he's coming along. I've never met an artist or composer who wouldn't give up the goddamned masterwork or smash it. Picasso was conned into doing a picture [publicly] for Jean Cocteau, I think, created on glass. Picasso made it after the war when he had been living with Francoise Gilot in the south of France. He was painting dozens of pictures of her--her breasts, rear end, and thighs. They were sketches of her, and then he'd change them into a fawn, an owl, a cat, or satyr. He could have had his arms tied, stood on his head in a dark closet, and with his toes produced a woman's breast and made it into an owl. It's like somebody saying, "Oh dear me I wonder if I can dive. I've not been practicing at all." Then "by accident" he goes up and does an incredible Olympic high flip and says, "Gee, wasn't that good luck?" You know damned well he's been practicing for days. You get yourself so damned perfect at it you can do it while you're drunk. The real style of it is to make believe you don't practice, to pretend it all comes naturally. There's never been a sportsman who had that ease, never an artist who could perform exquisitely without working like hell.

OMNI

When do you think a child ceases being a child?

Gajdusek

When you can't bat him around and still get a smile from him. Children are very resilient; adolescents have very little resilience. They're generally offended by any slight. They may become too self-conscious to watch a thing for itself, see the humor in themselves. Prepubertal or early-pubertal kids can be more objective than adolescents. There's a period of midadolescence when the only thing that concerns you is you, not the world, not other people. There's no problem taking care of kids by the dozens between the perinatal period and puberty. But when they start getting into midadolescence they all need to be frozen for ten years before they become human again.

OMNI

How many children have you raised?

Gajdusek

I've brought back thirty-four to the United States under legal adoption. In my earlier days with remote and primitive populations, I couldn't afford to bring them to America. I've never been a foundation and never "incorporated." I've just gone out to raise a family. The growth has simply been possible because of the good fortune of winning several prizes. The more money I got, the more kids. I've educated more than twice this number in New Guinea or the Caroline Islands, children to whom I'm equally committed. I see them every year. Most of these kids at the table are the sons and daughters of my traditionally adopted kids who weren't brought here.

OMNI

Did you donate your Nobel prize to build a school in New Guinea?

Gajdusek

No, the Nobel isn't that much money. It went up the year I got it, but now, with mostly two or three people sharing it, it amounts to eighty to ninety thousand dollars. Almost any medical specialist can make that just by quitting my laboratory and joining a medical group practice for one year.

OMNI

Weren't you ever afraid of contracting the diseases of these primitive cultures?

Gajdusek

Long before I worked with them I worked in the laboratory with rabies, poliomyelitis, viral encephalitides [cerebral diseases causing seizures, possibly coma and death], hemorrhagic fevers, and the plague. There is no cure for rabies or viral encephalitides. I've worked all my professional life in laboratories on highly infectious agents. In the war years the Russians brought us strains of Russian spring-summer encephalitis and hemorrhagic fever viruses.

You might say that we slopped them around in the laboratory in those years, yet not one person even got infected. If you know what you're doing, you and others are safe. It's like asking people who build high buildings how often they fall off or get pushed off. It's a funny question.

On the matter of fully guaranteed safety: It's like the phenomenon of the Palisades on the Hudson River. For miles there's no fence. Anyone could step over and they're dead. Now, if teenagers who were having fights with their parents, kids flunking exams, and adults in bankruptcy began running to the Palisades and jumping off, some damned fools would want to put fences up, probably with lights and night guards on them. It's like the craze of the American public about the Golden Gate Bridge. Some say ten people a year jump off it, some say hundreds. No one knows how many really do, and some people think it's important to count or look. I wouldn't waste one cent, even if it were for my son, my mother, my father, or me. Who the hell cares? For anyone who's rational, depressed, or demented enough to go way out there to commit suicide, I'd have a ramp for their wheelchairs, small steps for kids, assistance booths, and little signs along the way saying, LEAVE YOUR WALLETS HERE FOR CHARlTY. IF YOU HAVE ANY FURTHER NOTES OR LETTERS, DROP THEM HERE AND THEY WILL BE DELIVERED. I would have a little elevator to help them over.

As a doctor I am awed by human life but Jesus Christ, when people are rational enough to know they want to end it, I'd help them! Why spend a penny trying to stop them at such a reasonable suicide place as a bridge? It's better to have them jump from there instead of from an apartment house onto your head

OMNI

How did you get the Fore to abandon their ritual consumption of the dead?

Gajdusek

I never did.

OMNI

From your first encounter with kuru you believed it was infectious, isn't that right? That it was transmitted by cannibalism?

Gajdusek

Yes. But even a drunk could come to the conclusion that a disease that's epidemic to cannibals is transmittable by eating the dead. There was an old miner, a character right out of a Joseph Conrad novel. He was one of the first outsiders in the highlands of New Guinea, the kuru region. He was dying of his malaria--blackwater fever--when I met him post-World War II. He had never noticed kuru, but he began hearing about it from Vin Zigas, the doctor at Kainantu who treated the local New Guineans and all outsiders.

When I first came out of the kuru area after three or four months there, Zigas and I went to have a beer at the only bar in Kainantu. It was like something out of Abilene, Texas, in 1901: lots of boasting, lying, and drinking--and talk about that "funny young doctor" who was staying in the south with the cannibals with that funny disease. This drunken old miner jumped up, looked at me, and burst out laughing and screaming. "I see they've got you," he said, knocking over a chair, beers, pushing people out of the way. "Don't you bastards come near me! I don't want to catch the disease the cannibals are spreading by eating each other."

Doing autopsies we discovered that the Fore liked to watch and even assist, especially if it were their mother, father, sister, brother, son, or daughter. They liked to put their hands in, since they always dissected the bodies themselves. This destroyed our sterile field, got the tissues contaminated. They had no fear or reluctance to look at the brains or intestines of their kin. They always dissected their relatives with love and tender care and interest. They only objected to our doing autopsies in seclusion and preventing the family members from participating. Their hands were very dirty. We tried putting surgical gloves on some of the fathers and husbands, but they would rub their noses with the gloves.

We began doing the autopsies quasipublicly. The only reason it wasn't totally public was in deference to an occasional patrol officer or electrical engineer trying to set up a new generator for us. The European who'd never seen a postmortem couldn't quite understand such "barbarism" because he wouldn't want to watch the dead body of his mother carved up.

We didn't have gloves ourselves at first and were very careful to wash. Our great fear of touching the organs amused them. Whenever we treated them for their yaws [skin lesions], ulcers, and leprosy we tried to tell them to avoid touching the lesions because they were infectious. Knowing it was all caused by their own magic and sorcery, they didn't believe one bit of this. But as we began curing infections miraculously, especially yaws, with penicillin, and a few cases of leprosy with newer drugs, all the kids who were working with us began avoiding yaws and leprosy and started using soap and washing just like we did.

OMNI

So you weren't part of the group that convinced the Fore to stop eating their relatives' brains and stop rubbing their bodies with brain tissue?

Gajdusek

No. We told them we had no objection to their mortuary cannibalism, which expressed love for their dead relatives, although the government and missionaries did. It provided a good source of protein for a meat-starved community.

OMNI

But didn't you think kuru was spread that way?

Gajdusek

Before we even saw it Vin Zigas and I thought it was an infection, that it would turn out to be another form of leprosy, syphilis, or encephalitis. But further study showed no evidence of infection: no fever, no inflammation, no peripheral white-blood-cell response, no change in cerebrospinal fluid. Our neuropathological, neuropsychological, biochemical, and immunological studies all indicated it wasn't infectious. We discovered it wasn't a microbe. We knew this by 1959. That left us in a quandary. The epidemiology first made it look enormously like an infection, but close analysis forced us to the opposite conclusion. This situation of a paradox in science--contradictory findings, where you know what the answer should be but isn't--that's where all new discoveries come from. [Later still, after Gajdusek had run animal tests in the United States, he came to the conclusion that kuru was transmissible.--Ed.] We had originally assumed it was infectious, and as it turned out we had the right answer to start with.

But even today we aren't sure kuru is passed by eating the brain. With leprosy, for instance, we still don't know whether the bacillus enters the urethra, the rear end, nose, mouth--with the fingers scratching or rubbing the eyes or nose--or through contaminated food. Contact with eyes, nose, and skin is a much more certain way of getting infected than eating the virus. Only rarely can we produce kuru in monkeys, never in chimpanzees, infected orally with millions of infectious units. In the cannibalism ritual, holding brain tissue, getting it on hands, and scratching mosquito bites or scabies is a much more likely method of inoculation. Since they rarely washed their hands and often picked their noses and rubbed their eyes, this is undoubtedly how they got it.

OMNI

Why has the incidence of cannibalism among the Fore dropped so drastically?

Gajdusek

The Fore stopped opening the Pandora's box of the brain case and smearing vast quantities of infected brain tissue around. They abandoned their ritual cannibalism because they wanted to do what government and missionaries preached, since the society these outsiders came from meant steel tools, airplanes, and radios.

Cannibalism caused the release of the virus by opening the skull. There's no virus outside of the sick patient: no virus in the milk, urine, feces, saliva, or tears of the patient dying of kuru. It's not naturally secreted. Once the cranium is opened, the virus is released, but it's not a volatile virus like aspergillosis [infectious lung disease caused by highly resistant fungus] or Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus [causes fever, vomiting, mental confusion, convulsions, coma]. Kuru doesn't go easily into aerosols and stay in microdroplets in the air. It's not spread by the respiratory route.

OMNI

What help were the missionaries?

Gajdusek

Sometimes they were the first to make me aware of the medical problem. Catholic priests who visited the kuru area actually left because of the competition with Seventh Day Adventists and Lutherans. New Guinea is a mecca for soul savers. Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Anglicans, Lutherans, and Fundamentalist Protestants all compete. Many are affiliated only with their own church, and every one has had individual experience with Christ. They're freelance individualists, and no church stands between them and God.

OMNI

Did they successfully impose their views on the tribes in your area?

Gajdusek

Most missionaries I encountered urged married men with many wives to remain married and to continue to copulate with their third or fourth wife, who were often pubertal girls. The people had discovered that the missionary, Gajdusek, Zigas, the government officers, and other physicians didn't have many wives. Yet these were the people who brought them Florentine glass beads, matches, steel knives, and axes to be like the Christians.

So they began throwing out their extra wives. We saw malnourished and abandoned kids, some even dying. The mothers told us their husbands wouldn't let them use the family gardens any longer or even help cultivate them. So Christian missionaries begged the men to keep up their polygamous duties and care for their wives and children. When the priests or Presbyterian missionaries told them to share their women more equitably, some men loaned their extra wives to relatives who asked for them. The missionaries said, "This isn't what we meant."

Oh God! [Gajdusek reads from a form his eleven-year-old New Guinean son hands to him.] "I hereby give permission for my son or daughter to enroll in the Family Life and Human Development Course." As a grandparent on a farm in the Midwest, one of your roles might be to tell bedtime stories to your grandchildren. In some Micronesian cultures such grandparents provide sexual instruction to their grandchildren, teaching them to produce orgasm in both sexes ages sixteen to sixty. Few normal, well-brought up, moral children in such Micronesian or Polynesian islands aren't knowledgeable in massaging adults into orgasm. Parents might send a child to accommodate an older person. A child who was unfamiliar with sexual practice by early puberty would be antisocial. These people believe sex is a part of normal life at all ages. That is what made so many sailors and beachcombers, including Herman Melville and the missionaries, stay so long on many Pacific islands. Sailors rarely jumped ship in Valparaiso, Macao, Alexandria, or Calcutta, but regularly in the "savage" South Sea islands.

Islanders playing the role of host consider providing sexual partners as important as food and feasting. Most kids are brought up to know techniques that would make an obstetrician blush. They're great concubines and incubi because they've had morally correct parents who've trained them in all the tricks of sexuality, including satisfying and seducing adults. Most visiting adults love it. The children rarely speak publicly about sex, and they tell few sexual jokes. Discretion is the hallmark of Micronesian society.

OMNI

Is America as a whole becoming increasingly diseased?

Gajdusek

Since the age of sails, all infectious diseases have spread around the world--and most of them earlier than that. European ships brought devastating smallpox and measles epidemics to isolated Amerindian and South Seas groups. There are plenty of mummies with clear-cut syphilitic bone lesions in sixteenth-century European cemeteries but not in the fifteenth. We have historical reports of its introduction. There's even a poem about the spread of the syphilis plague--like an AIDS plague--following Columbus. It really appears that syphilis was introduced to the rest of the world through the discovery of America. It was probably a severe form of yaws, but that's not provable.

OMNI

Evangelists have referred to AIDS as the "gay plague."

Gajdusek

This epidemic was obviously made for fire-and-brimstone evangelists. From a humanitarian point of view, there are frightening aspects to the matter. It's easy to tell every gay that it's his promiscuity that does it. All these patients have had dozens to hundreds of different sexual contacts per annum. We advise them to be more celibate or get married to their gay partner. This seems like rational advice, yet I suspect we could dig up hundreds of kids and adults who are involved in oral sex for pay as male prostitutes without finding anyone with AIDS. Oral sex should cause it: We have evidence that the virus is in saliva of infected animals. It has been demonstrated in a few human salivas. But to my knowledge there isn't an example of AIDS in those whose only sexual contact with others is fellatio. To play the devil's advocate to the fire-and-brimstone preacher, tell everybody to switch to oral sex and more of it! I state this as a joke, but some gay physicians told us that in advising gays to curtail their promiscuity, we were paying homage to our Puritan ancestors rather than following the rational outcome of our investigations. They were right: Data show a complete absence of AIDS in active partners in anal sex or in those engaged in fellatio exclusively. We are seeking the real answer, suspecting that doses of virus and route of inoculation are important factors.

OMNI

Does disease evolve like the rest of life on the planet?

Gajdusek

Disease evolves faster. Microbes have a generation time of a different order of magnitude than larger living things. It's minutes and hours instead of weeks and years. In the lab during one human lifetime the influenza virus can go through changes equivalent to a million years of human evolution. Many viruses do. Other viruses have remained more genetically stable, and we're trying to find out what makes a virus genetically stable and what makes it labile. An influenza epidemic that travels throughout the world rarely kills many of the afflicted. If it did, it would destroy its obligate host. It doesn't seem to have a latent form of animal reservoir; it can live only in man. Every once in a while flu changes itself dramatically by mutation and then attacks those who haven't got the right antibody to stop active infection. It spreads like mad again, sometimes producing a mild disease, sometimes a devastating one. After World War I, it killed more people in a brief period than both world wars put together. Medicine had nothing oo prevent or treat it. But the virus exhausted its susceptibles. That could happen again, and that's why we're spending millions trying to figure out how influenza virus varies and to keep track of it. We now know what it's doing, but we're not up to controlling it or producing a very efficient vaccine.

OMNI

Would an antivirus compound make use of monoclonal antibodies?

Gajdusek

The fact is, monoclonal antibodies are too perfect. They're like the best-fitting glove in the world, that fits you and no one else--perhaps only two of your fingers but not your whole hand, The glove might be so good that it mimics your fingerprint and no one else's, but who wants to pay thousands for such gloves or such crazy specificity? So with monoclonals we've made a beautiful research tool. We're discovering new facts about microbes, but the great hopes that monoclonals were going to revolutionize and lessen the cost of diagnostic laboratories have not borne up. It still costs too much to make monoclonals, and we lose diagnostic ability. If my monoclonal diagnoses only ninety-seven percent of syphilis cases and the old method hit them all, let's just stick with the old.

OMNI

Has smallpox truly been wiped off the face of the earth?

Gajdusek

The disease has been, but the virus hasn't. Some disturbed crank in a lab could release it. Inocula are still in a few labs for good reason. Some nations and military laboratories may keep it even if they declare they don't. Bacterial-warfare centers surely have it, though we have no such centers in America any longer.

OMNI

Isn't Fort Detrick in Maryland such a biological-warfare research facility?

Gajdusek

No, emphatically no! There is no defensive or offensive warfare microbiology done at Fort Detrick today. It is the national cancer research facility of NIH. In this facility I have a building where more good and loyal Communist scientists from the USSR and mainland China work--with full passkeys to all the laboratories--than Americans. With night-working U.S. citizens and foreign Communist investigators here, obviously there is no "secret" bacterial warfare activity going on. Even the Army's infectious-disease unit is loaded with foreign workers--not always friendly nationals. It is a valid basic research unit on worldwide problems of infectious diseases in which no classified or secret activities unfold.

A few selected laboratories are holding smallpox virus for defensive purposes to be able to compare antigens in case an accident happens. Smallpox can still be resurrected, although the disease is apparently fully eradicated. If world organizations decree that everyone must get rid of it and some do not, then what do you do?

OMNI

Isn't the genetic formula for smallpox antigen still around?

Gajdusek

The full sequence of the immense DNA genome was never determined. We could save noninfectious antisera, but this "fingerprint" probably wouldn't be enough to resurrect the antigens. Whereas smallpox was not a potential warfare bacterial weapon when the whole world was vaccinated, now it's a major possibility. All an anarchist has to do is to get a vial from a lab and keep it frozen. He needn't go to grade school to figure out how to make a suspension of enough doses to infect thousands. It's a Catch-22 problem: You trust the people who have it and you might get into trouble. You try to get rid of it all and you need it to identify new pox viruses. Not everybody in every nation is going to comply, Vaccine virus for mass immunization must be kept on hand should smallpox ever appear again--which I doubt.

OMNI

How do you store it?

Gajdusek

If you lyophilize it, you can keep it at room temperature. Lyophilization is another word for freeze-drying. The technique came from microbiology many years before industry used it, and now you use it for your powdered milk.

OMNI

What do you think of the Food and Drug Administration's process of approving new drugs?

Gajdusek

To prevent another thalidomide episode the law is such that there's no way aspirin could be marketed for many years if it were newly discovered. This applies to penicillin, streptomycin, polio vaccine, and many new medicines and vaccines.

OMNI

Isn't there a committee appointed to circumvent that long approval process?

Gajdusek

Our safety approval processes today are actually longer rather than shorter. Ridiculously safety-conscious people want all risks removed from life--they want to make sure that a meteorite doesn't hit them. If you get knifed in the street by a psychotic who's been unwisely released from mental care, I see no cause for redress. You should know that walking the night streets has once again become dangerous. It's your fault for being uncautious, not his, so I prefer zero insurance. The American attitude is that any single four-year-old who loses a finger from an infection--properly handled or not--might have been a Paderewski. If she loses a toe, she might have been a Pavlova, and that loss is equated to the lifetime personal earnings of such an imagined genius.

Americans romantically place an infinite value on their kids--when others are paying. If you're on the Yukon, whether you're a hippie, hunter, missionary, or doctor, no one will send a seaplane to get your wife to the hospital. Nobody takes the sharecroppers or poor people in our ghettos to the Mayo Clinic by helicopter when they're dying. If they don't get there themselves by taxi or ambulance, they die in their beds. Americans talk a lot about the "inestimable value of human life," but we're about the worst for really coughing up funds for those unable to care for themselves.

OMNI

What's your view of democracy?

Gajdusek

There's none in nature. When the data aren't in, uninformed opinion by the millions about a phenomenon of nature isn't worth one informed opinion. A career in science can put you in the unique position of not being the victim of everybody's conjectures. There is no one between you and the facts, unlike politics or law, in which you have decisions of an emperor or pope, or juries in common law. In science the person with the upper hand is the one who knows the most about the matter. If you are wrong you are not beaten or defeated but simply embrace the demonstrated truth. Science thrives on paradoxes--evidence of inadequate understanding--and paradoxes formulate the challenges of the future. Vehement argument does not exist in science.



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