AIDS changed everything. Understatement of the year, I know. But AIDS created advances in science that were simply unthinkable before this devastating disease was recognized. Including the idea that diseases, diseases that could kill people, could originally come from animals, just as AIDS came from monkeys.
When Dr. Steve Morse was a young virologist at the renowned Rockefeller University, he started thinking differently. When a dramatic disease outbreak occurred among children returning from a field trip to the country, Steve started to explore the idea that the unknown virus that caused the disease could have come from an animal. This was still radical thinking in the late 1980s.
He brought his ideas to Josh Lederberg, the Nobel Prize Laureate and then president of Rockefeller University. Initially skeptical, Steve managed to convince Dr. Lederberg that viruses like Ebola and several other newly discovered hemorrhagic fevers could all have originated from animal sources. The rest is history as Steve worked diligently to bring together high-powered scientists from around the world in the first ever National Institutes of Health funded Conference on Emerging Viruses. His seminal book Emerging Viruses (1993) was selected by American Scientist as one of the “100 Top Science Books of the 20th Century.”
Modern day ‘virus hunters’ will gain all the credit and the glory when they discover previously unknown viruses like the Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) that has spilled over from animals to humans or the latest bird flu that could become pandemic. Make no mistake, his shy giggle as we have lunch together cannot hide the fact that he started the whole ball rolling and is, indeed, the Patron Saint of virus hunters.
Here’s to stopping the next Ebola long before it happens, because maybe now we can.