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IHV: Scanning the globe for viruses, from Baltimore

Somewhere in our conversation about Ebola and other viruses, Dr. Robert Gallo mentions crows. The man's mind works at warp speed — even without the jolt of caffeine from a midafternoon coffee at his office in West Baltimore — and he rattles off opinions, quips, facts and anecdotes so fast you'd better grab something and hold on. I grab "crows."

"Did you say, 'crows'?" I ask.

"Yes, I observed crows overhead," says Gallo, world-famous as the co-discoverer of the virus that causes AIDS and director of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

It was August 2012. Gallo had been bitten by a mosquito in his backyard in suburban Maryland. He was experiencing chills, fever, loss of appetite, drowsiness, headache, muscle aches. Crows, among other animals, are susceptible to West Nile virus, which can cause encephalitis or meningitis. When they bite infected crows, mosquitoes pick up the virus. They can transmit West Nile to humans or other mammals when they suck their blood.

"I thought I had mild encephalitis," Gallo says. "So I had the tests, and the tests came back negative. Then, more tests, and again, negative."

The symptoms eventually went away; the cause remained a mystery.

When Gallo mentioned this to an old friend and colleague, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Fauci made an instant diagnosis: "Virus Unknown," by far the planet's most common.

Known or unknown, the many viruses of the world can no longer be dismissed as exotic phenomena that rarely come to the United States. If that was not made clear by the HIV/AIDS pandemic that has killed 36 million people worldwide — and still infects 50,000 Americans a year — it should be from the Ebola outbreak.

That's one of the many points in Gallo's personal story about the crows and the mosquitoes. In fact, he used a phrase — "a single microbial world" — to describe, in his rapid-fire clinical poetry, the phenomenon of the viral globe-trotter.

Here we are, in what many scientists call the Anthropocene, the epoch of human dominance over the Earth; we have phenomenal technological powers to change and shape the world. With exploitation of once-pristine regions and with international travel, man has certainly contributed to the spreading of diseases, and at an accelerated rate in the last century, particularly since World War II. So, Gallo says, the concept of the universal microorganism is very real in the human age. When it comes to microscopic pathogens — bacteria, viruses — we are increasingly becoming one world.

"The idea of a single microbial world means that an infectious agent in one place in the world can be in any other place quickly," says Sharon Hrynkow, president of the Global Virus Network, a Gallo brainchild now in its third year and based a few blocks away from the IHV, in the University of Maryland BioPark.

In Gallo's vision, the network could greatly improve how the world reacts and responds to viral outbreaks like the one in West Africa. It's a constellation of stars from the virology universe — researchers based at 31 "centers of excellence" in 29 countries who can provide the best information available about specific outbreaks, quickly research them and come up with a treatment or cure. The IHV is one such center; so is the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

"Humanity and public health authorities need a worldwide network of pre-eminent medical virologists responsible for the identification and investigation of emerging viral threats," Gallo says. "We have an enormous number of known, unsolved, serious virus problems now. Research, training and collaboration on a global scale for solving these problems is far from adequately funded and without global scientific leadership.

"A properly supported [Global Virus Network], or something akin to it, has been needed since the dawn of medical virology at the beginning of the 20th century."

Gallo and Hrynkow say the network's experts are laboratory-based scientists, free of government control. They respect the work of both the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "But the WHO has no labs," Gallo says, "and the CDC is good, but their responsibility is everything."

The Global Virus Network is just about viruses.

"There are about 190 viruses that cause human disease," Hrynkow says. "We know them all, and we have expertise in all of them."

The network's mission includes training the next generation of virus investigators and funding new lines of research that governments might be unwilling or unable to support. The network is still ramping up and raising money.

"It's a scientist-driven, apolitical organization, a global community of scholars." says Hrynkow. Nothing else like it exists, she says.

Considering the emergence of the network as an independent authority on viral outbreaks like Ebola, plus Gallo's research at the IHV a couple of blocks away, plus the phenomenal work done by Hopkins/Bloomberg across town and across oceans, Baltimore certainly boasts public health leadership at a time when the world begs for it.

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Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM

This article appeared on the Baltimore Sun.