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‘History repeats itself’: La Jolla researcher updates book on viruses to include the current pandemic

Dr. Michael Oldstone, a La Jollan and Scripps Research professor, has updated his book to include the coronavirus pandemic.
Dr. Michael Oldstone, a La Jollan and Scripps Research professor, has updated his book on viruses and plagues to include the current coronavirus pandemic.
(Courtesy)

La Jolla resident Dr. Michael Oldstone has updated his 1998 book “Viruses, Plagues & History” to include the current coronavirus pandemic, believing that readers can learn from the past.

Oldstone, a professor emeritus in the department of immunology and microbiology at Scripps Research in La Jolla, said the book is about “how viruses cause plagues and epidemics and the consequences of those plagues and epidemics in terms of health, politics, culture and governments rising or falling.”

He said the book covers “each of the different viruses, the people who worked on it, the problems they had and how the solutions came to pass,” along with “the course of history they changed,” from slavery in the Americas and Catholicism in Latin America to the Louisiana Purchase and feasibility of the Panama Canal.

Michael Oldstone's book, updated this year, draws parallels between the coronavirus pandemic and health crises of the past.
Dr. Michael Oldstone’s book, updated this year, draws parallels between the coronavirus pandemic and health crises of the past.
(Courtesy)

Oldstone, who has been at Scripps since 1966, first for postdoctoral training and then positions as assistant and tenured professor, said the book also is about “how these plagues have been treated. Some are successful and some are ongoing.”

Oldstone first updated “Viruses, Plagues & History” in 2010 and republished it in September this year to include information on the coronavirus, Zika virus and hepatitis, along with a chapter on how fears of autism have prompted some people to refuse vaccines.

In studying the coronavirus pandemic, Oldstone draws many parallels between it and viruses that have plagued humans in the past.

The new restrictions for the Southern California region go into effect at 11:59 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 6, and must stay in place for at least three weeks because the region’s intensive care capacity has dropped below 15 percent.

Past plagues that were treated successfully include smallpox, yellow fever, measles and polio, Oldstone said. “All those plagues had the same element of fear and not knowing what was going on,” as well as “difficulties with politics and culture trumping science [and] people not following public health directions and things getting worse because they didn’t do that.”

Eventually, scientists developed treatments — vaccines — that were effective, he said.

“Recent plagues — like HIV/AIDS — 10, 12 years ago killed 98 percent of the people it infected and now it doesn’t really kill any,” he said. “As long as you take the antiviral medication, you can live a long life.”

Oldstone said the Ebola virus, which was “devastating to the economy, the politics and the governments of Africa,” now has antiviral treatment and a vaccine. “You can now treat acute infections and you can stop the spread of Ebola, which had very limited hope in the past.

“And that, of course, is the blueprint for the coronavirus that we are facing now.”

“It’s quite amazing that with the technology we have today that you can get antivirals so rapidly and you can get a potential vaccine so rapidly,” he added.

Stopping a pandemic needs to be through a combination of public health measures, Oldstone said.

“Viruses have no borders; they can cause incredible harm,” he said. “When the influenza virus occurred in 1918 and 1919 in the United States, there were seven cities that had strict public health and lockdowns; other cities did not. One city that did not was Philadelphia, [where] so many people died they ran out of coffins and they had to bury them in mass pits.

“In San Francisco, they had to wear masks and follow other public health measures; they had fines if you didn’t do that. When they relaxed that, within three weeks they had a spike that was excessive of the cases they had before. So a lot of things you are seeing now have occurred before.”

“History repeats itself,” Oldstone said. “The point is, you can’t educate ignorance.”

Exacerbating the problem is that “virologists, immunologists and geneticists who work on the problem … haven’t really publicized what we’ve done really well,” he said, citing the example of polio, which was nearly eradicated after a vaccine was created in the 1950s.

Oldstone said he was originally motivated to write the book by his fascination with virology, immunology and history.

Originally a history and English major in college, he was “interested in knowing more about empathy that people have in terms of the diseases they have,” he said. “In medical school, I was interested in why people got sick,” not just in being able to diagnose and treat them.

Updating the book is a “continuous process,” he said — he’s constantly reading data and reports on current and past plagues.

“I was hoping when you read [the book], you understand there’s nothing to fear but fear,” Oldstone said. “We’ve gone through this multiple times and will come through this. We’ve had worse pandemics.”

“Viruses, Plagues & History” is available for $19.95 through Amazon or at bit.ly/oldstonevirusbook. ◆