April 26, 2009
By Tom Junod
Originally published in the December 2005 issue
It’s not that he doesn’t worry. He does, plenty. Raw oysters? Hell no — doesn’t touch them. “A lottery,” he calls them, with all their potential for vectoring the Vibrio vulnificus pathogen to susceptibles. Clams, the same. And forget sushi. His wife eats it, but not with him around, because he makes her nervous. It’s not just uncooked seafood, either: A few years ago, he asked his students to monitor the bacteria counts of chicken in the local supermarket, and when they found a dramatic spike in microbial activity the day before the chicken’s sell-by date, he adjusted his shopping patterns accordingly. In public restrooms, he keeps a paper towel wrapped around his fist after washing and drying his hands, because that’s one case where “behavior normally associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder makes perfect sense.”
You see, when Paul Ewald is speaking of “susceptibles,” he’s not necessarily referring to a subset of the population earmarked for a particular infection by virtue of a particular vulnerability. He’s referring to himself. He’s referring to the portion of humanity he calls “the uninfected.” He’s referring to us. We’re all susceptibles in Ewald’s view, because Ewald, a fifty-two-year-old evolutionary biologist at the University of Louisville, has taken up the evolutionary point of view of the pathogen — the germ. He has gotten into arguments with scientists predisposed to think that most germs are content to live as domestically as dogs. “No,” he says, “they’re out to have dinner, and their dinner is us. What science has to figure out is what makes some of them voracious and some of them not.”
So he worries. He just doesn’t happen to worry about the thing that everyone else is worrying about. He doesn’t worry about the global pandemic. Or, more precisely, he worries about the possibility of global pandemics, but not the possibility of a global pandemic caused by the H5N1 influenza virus, otherwise known as the bird flu. You know: the pandemic that is supposed to be taking hold in Asia; the pandemic that is already killing nearly all of the domesticated birds it infects; the pandemic that is said to be but one deadly mutation away from awful fruition; the pandemic humanity is due for; the pandemic that is being counted on to kill anywhere from five million to one billion people; the pandemic that is being presented as a kind of natural corrective to globalization; the pandemic that has been wildly politicized before it has even happened; the pandemic that seems both the subject of humanity’s dread and the object of its fantastic secret desires — that pandemic. Well, just as any number of virologists and epidemiologists and pharmacologists and journalists have made their careers serving as the pandemic’s giddily gloomy heralds, Ewald has made something of a career saying it’s not going to happen. It’s just not. For it to happen, the world has to change. Not the virus. Not H5N1. The world.