If you were on campus this Friday, you probably saw a message about a malfunctioning door in the Shope BSL4, the biosafety lab that’s been running for almost four years at UTMB. Because the facility worked as it’s supposed to work, the issue was a non-issue—and the university fulfilled its pledged to keep the community and media informed about events in our biocontainment facilities.
I keep a stack of National Geographics near my bed and flip through them in those few quiet minutes of settling in before sleep. A few nights ago, I came across an article that puts the big picture in perspective for me (and turned out to be so very timely); it hammers home the importance of this lab and the work some very bright and dedicated men and women do in it. The article “Deadly Contact,” was written by David Quammen and ran in October 2007. Here’s an excerpt from it:
Predators are relatively big beasts that eat their prey from outside. Pathogens (disease-causing agents, such as viruses) are relatively small beasts that eat their prey from within. Although infectious disease can seem grisly and dreadful, under ordinary conditions it’s every bit as natural as what lions do to wildebeests, zebras, and gazelles. But conditions aren’t always ordinary. Just as predators have their accustomed prey species, their favored targets, so do pathogens. And just as a lion might occasionally depart from its normal behavior—to kill a cow instead of a wildebeest, a human instead of a zebra—so can a pathogen shift to a new target. Accidents happen. Aberrations occur. Circumstances change and, with them, opportunities and exigencies also change. When a pathogen leaps from some nonhuman animal into a person, and succeeds there in making trouble, the result is what’s known as a zoonosis.
It’s a good article. Life and nature are amazing and complex. The work we’re doing to understand nature and protect people is vital. Read the full text online at National Geographic Magazine.