A few thoughts on infection

Right now I am reading Beating Back the Devil, which is about the Epidemic Intelligence Service, a branch of the CDC. I haven’t gotten too far in, but so far so good. I’ve always liked reading about diseases, how they spread, who studies them, how they study them, and so on. Viruses, in particular, are neat little things. And most of them look gorgeous under a microscope.

I just finished the chapter on smallpox eradication, and it got me thinking about another type of virus. But first, a moment on smallpox. For those of us born after the 1970s, smallpox is rather an abstract idea. Yes, it killed lots of people. Yes, it could be used as a biological weapon, in which case we are all fucked. But, really, we don’t know that much about it as a disease. Smallpox, so far, is the only virus which has been totally eradicated from society worldwide through human effort, and it was a concerted and difficult world effort–nations from all over the world came together to defeat smallpox.

Why? Because nations without smallpox, like Sweden and the United States, realized that they would never truly be free of it if smallpox reservoirs existed somewhere on earth. As a result, smallpox infection would keep being reintroduced into their populations. Therefore, these nations couldn’t cease vaccination programs. This was a problem, because the smallpox vaccine comes with some risks, like death. (Incidentally, the word “vaccine” was coined by Edward Jenner, who invented a smallpox vaccine using a similar virus, the cowpox virus, in 1796. “Vaccine” is derived from the Latin for “cow.”) So the whole world banded together, and the first world provided a hefty bankroll, and smallpox was eradicated from the last few places on earth. Samples of the virus are kept frozen in two labs–one in Russia, and one in the United States. In recent years, the concern has been that regional instability in Russia may have resulted in “leakage,” that more samples of the virus probably exist untracked in unscrupulous hands. Make no mistake–release of smallpox on the global population would be devastating, since later research has shown that the vaccine is not effective for life, meaning that the global population is highly vulnerable to smallpox.

So viruses. I was thinking about computer viruses today, and I feel that in some ways they are similar to smallpox. A percentage of the (computer) population has been vaccinated against viruses, and receives booster shots. However, a large portion of the world doesn’t have virus protection. Most computers ship with temporary free trials of anti-virus software, which few people bother to renew. As a result, a lot of computers are essentially virus dumps, releasing myriad viruses upon the rest of the world. This is harmful to the computer industry, and to other computing users who wish to use the internet. Computer viruses are like AIDS–it’s great if you can afford to use a condom every time, but if you can’t, you are magnifying the infection and putting other people at risk.

So why hasn’t the computer industry gotten together and provided a free, stable anti-virus software which ships with every system and updates automatically through a central database? Wouldn’t that be smart? It would be good business for them, after all. And it would work like global inoculation, preventing the devastating spread of viruses, especially since most computer users aren’t terribly savvy about updating and securing their systems, and in a sense need to be protected from themselves. And because Windows often ships with major security loopholes and errors which need to be addressed. Mac users like to boast about their invulnerability to viruses (right, I mean, who would bother making a virus for the four Macs left in the world?) We PC owners could be just as invulnerable if the industry was willing to work with us to protect us. Alas, it seems that companies like Symantec would get pissy, because they would be losing a substantial profit gained through marketing anti-virus software to computer users. In this capitalist world, god forbid that anyone retool their business–making, for example, companies like Symantec the virus database administrators.

We can eradicate computer viruses like we did smallpox–it has been shown to be possible. The question is: how badly do we want it?