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The world we live in

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Among the great mysteries of human existence, our uncertain relationship with our environment has been a constant source of puzzlement. In the days of the flat earth, when gods and planets needed constant placation and sacrifice lest the food supply fail and fertility fall, surging infections were thought to be a further manifestation of divine displeasure — something that the deities inflicted upon the people (demos) from above (epi) to chasten and punish. Yet the Old Testament book of Leviticus shows that, thousands of years ago, the need to quarantine people with rashes or swellings “like the plague of leprosy” was recognised (Leviticus 13: 2–5), implying that humans understood from early on that they had a measure of control over infective afflictions.

The path from primitive ignorance and fear to the understanding of the microbiological cause of infection is, as the cliche runs, history. Nevertheless, we continue to fear uncontrolled epidemics, despite our heavy investment in technology to hold them at bay.

Battling the threats

At the beginning of 2003, during the early phases of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic, I saw lights burning in the windows of Ian Lipkin’s microbiology laboratory at Columbia University, close to where I was working at the time, for 24 hours every day during the race to sequence the genome of the virus responsible. By May,…