Dr. Charles Calisher is an epidemiologist who specializes in the evolution of arboviruses, diseases transmitted by insects and other arthropods. He has served as Chairman of the Executive Council of the American Committee on Arthropod-Borne Viruses.

From 1973 to 1992, Dr. Calisher worked as Director of the World Health Organization’s Collaborating Centre for Arboviruses in the Americas, Division of Vector-Borne Viral Diseases. He served as Chief of the W.H.O.’s Arbovirus Reference Branch from 1973-1989 before taking a position as Assistant Director for International Programs at the Centers for Disease Control, Division of Vector-Borne Infectious Diseases, a position he held until 1992. Since 1996, Dr. Calisher has been Moderator for the Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases (ProMed).

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Q: As I understand it, the last remaining vials of smallpox virus in the U.S. and Moscow are scheduled to be destroyed this June. This seems to me to rival the Y2K problem in its lack of foresight and its potential to come back and bite us in the ass, not to mention the ethical implications of germicide. What do you think?

A: Screw the ethical implications of germicide. It’s “us” against “them.” I am still hung up on the scientific implications of destroying a species. As you might know, there has been a huge argument within the scientific community as to whether to destroy smallpox virus or not. Within this very complex virus may be answers to questions we have not yet asked. This is in addition to the possible risk caused by some nut-case who might get hold of smallpox virus and distribute it here and there. However, we do not use that virus to immunize against smallpox. We use cowpox, a close but attenuated relative, so we could always make more vaccine if we needed to. Either way, destroy or not, will be a bad decision.

A: Along similar lines, do you know anything about this story:

WIRE: Feb. 10, 11:54 a.m. ET
AP News Service
WASHINGTON (AP) — Consumer advocates urged the government today to immediately recall a clot-busting drug called Abbokinase because manufacturing violations mean it could be contaminated with such infections as hepatitis.

The Food and Drug Administration already has warned of the potential infection risk. Last month, the agency urged doctors to use the numerous other clot-busters sold instead, and to consider Abbokinase a last resort. Although that’s not an absolute guarantee, the FDA let sales resume late last month once manufacturer Abbott Inc. had upgraded its safety methods to guard against future problems.

The consumer group Public Citizen charged today that FDA ignored its own inspectors’ recommendations to seize $100 million worth of Abbokinase and the raw materials used to make it — kidney cells from dead babies imported from Colombia.

The group called for an FDA investigation into the “extremely suspicious circumstances” in which Maryland-based BioWhittaker Inc. obtained the kidney tissue it sold to Abbott. Inspection reports say the tissue was obtained without proper screening to ensure the babies and their mothers were healthy.

A: I do not know the details of this flap and I once worked for a company that was the predecessor organization to BioWhittaker, so I am not comfortable getting into this in depth. Let me ask you a question: Do you think we should hold people responsible for not meeting standards that were not standards when they didn’t meet them? I didn’t think so.

The business about parts from dead babies is crap. They are talking about fetal tissues. This argument has gone on for decades. No one in this country is stealing dead babies (or live ones) from Colombia or from anywhere else. This is the worst sort of rumor-mongering. There are no “abortion clinics” in Latin America where U.S. personnel are stationed in waiting. The term “miscarriage” is used when God performs an abortion. This happens, usually for good genetic reason (He is, after all, God, and He knows what He is doing). No reason to waste tissue that could be put to good use.

On the other hand, who knows what viruses these tissues contain? Maybe the presence of a virus was the reason for the miscarriage. Do the tissues contain an undetectable leukemia virus? The list goes on. It’s an imperfect world. But I do not think there is a plot. It is the Right Wing who support such nonsensical ideas. They are the main problem, not medical researchers.

Q: John Maddox claims that in the next 20 years, medicine will be revolutionized by new gene technology. Do you agree? What will epidemiology look like in 20 years? (genetically altered antibodies? nano-technology?

A: What does a football coach know about molecular biology?

Q: You’ve spent your life discovering new life forms. Do you believe in life on other planets?

A: I have never discovered a new life form. All I have done is find things no one ever found before. Anyone could do it. Go into the woods behind your house and find a plant that doesn’t look good; one with a streak on the leaf or a curled leaf or something else odd. You will probably isolate a virus from that plant, one that has not been isolated before. Go to a swamp and fish out some invertebrates; you will likely find a new virus or parasite in them. These things are all over the place. We don’t notice them until they make themselves know or until we actually look for them.

Q: Will humanity ever be free of disease?

A: I assume you mean infectious diseases. I don’t know anything about non-infectious diseases, except Raiders’ fans. In any event, I don’t think so. First of all, I do not think we can beat the bacteria and other disease organisms at their own game. They were here before we arrived and they will be here after we are long gone. “Infectious disease” is the end-product of an attempt by a microscopic organism to find a good place to live, a place where there is food and other good conditions. It is really only the rare host that gets sick. Most of the time we seem to get along with our parasites or to kick them out. When we lose the battle it is a big time result. Disease is a part of the human condition. I could theorize about a time far into the future when all the survivors of all the diseases would have built themselves genetic walls and are no longer susceptible to such organisms. Problem is the little beasts will only mutate and get around the walls. All we can do is try to keep our heads above water on this one.

Anyway, I hope we won’t be free of disease. This is job security, boy.