Skip to main content

Viruses vs Superbugs – Thomas Häusler ****

If ever there was a book that wasn’t for the faint hearted, it’s this one. I don’t mean that it’s painful to read. Despite being a translation (I’ll come back to this), it’s fluent and easy to get through the words – it’s just the contents that are nerve wracking.
We’ve all heard the news stories about “superbugs” – bacteria like MRSA (originally short for methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus, but now, in sinister fashion, the MR means multi-resistant) that stalk hospitals and elsewhere, killing patients and refusing to respond to antibiotics. The first part of Thomas Häusler’s book concentrates firmly on scaring us to death about just how unstoppable these simple, but deadly bacteria, always around ready to take on a suitable wound, are becoming. The trouble is that bacteria breed very quickly. That means it doesn’t take long for a variant to occur that happens to be able to resist an antibiotic, and once the mutation crops up, natural selection means it may well have a better chance of surviving. Especially if antibiotics are sprayed around heavy-handedly by doctors and the livestock industry as Häusler makes it very clear they have been.
Is all lost? Are we to return to the bad old days, pre-antibiotics, where deaths from these killer bacteria were rife? Luckily, before we all go away and end it all, we are offered an alternative. Bacteria have a natural enemy – specialist viruses that prey on bacteria called phages (great word – and it doesn’t do any harm that they under an electron microscope they bear a distinct visual resemblance to the lunar lander – very sci-fi). This proves to be one of those “told you so” things, where those who get all snotty about modern science can say “we knew better in the old days”. Phages were popular as a weapon against bacteria before antibiotics were introduced, particularly in Eastern Europe, and have continued to be used there but not elsewhere. Since the earlier part of the twentieth century, there has been a lot of doubt about the effectiveness of phages – not helped by a period when they were marketed like patent medicine. What Häusler does is to show how phages offer hope when combined with modern techniques, if the antibiotics give up.
Of course there is a long and chequered history of using natural predators to dispose of an unwanted infestation. Ladybirds (ladybugs) are popular environmentally friendly solutions to aphids, for instance. But the “chequered” part refers to the habit of many predators, when let loose, of doing unexpected damage. While phages are very targeted, so unlikely to stray, there is always the concern that something might go wrong – viruses can mutate too. Also enough isn’t known about phages. Some are effectively symbiotic, and instead of killing a bacterium, these “temperate phages” can turn a low risk infector into a killer. And then it’s not always easy to get the right phages to the right place to kill the bacteria as they’re relatively big compared with the chemical molecules of a drug, and the body has a tendency to break them down. That makes it a more balanced, more interesting story than simply “hey, here’s a new cure, no need to worry.”
If you can cope with the content, there’s not that much to criticize, though the book does slightly lose impetus after a while (I found, for instance, the story of Georgiy Eliava, a phage pioneer’s struggle against the Soviet machine took me too far off track). It does also occasionally slip into tabloid language – I know MRSA is often labelled a “superbug”, but the use of “bug” as an alternative for bacterium grates.
On the whole, despite the very depressing content, this was a good book. Many translations feel lumpy, somehow, like a loaf that hasn’t risen properly – this is very readable, and it would be impossible to tell it was a translation if the reader hadn’t been told. The story is told well, and strikingly too. There’s excellent use of the stories of real people involved in the fight against bacteria – both medics and patients. It’s just… I think now I’ve read it, I want to wash my hands. In fact, I’ll go and do it now…
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

Everything You Know About Space Is Wrong - Matt Brown ****

What we have here is a feast of assertions some people make about space that are satisfyingly incorrect, with pithy, entertaining explanations of what the true picture is. Matt Brown admits in his introduction that a lot of these incorrect facts are nitpicking - more on that in a moment - but it doesn't stop them being delightful. I particularly enjoyed the ones about animals in space and about the Moon.

Along the way, we take in space exploration, the Earth's place in space, the Moon, the solar system, the universe and a collection of random oddities, such as the fact that Mozart didn't write Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Sometimes the wrongness comes from a frequent misunderstanding. So, for example, Brown corrects the idea that Copernicus was the first to say that the Earth moves around the Sun. Sometimes there's some very careful wording. This is used when Brown challenges the idea that the Russian dog Laika was the first animal in space. What we discover is that, i…

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs - Lisa Randall ****

I did my PhD in galactic dynamics - which is an awkward subject when people want to know what its relevance to the 'real world' is. So I was excited when Clube and Napier's book The Cosmic Serpent came out, around the same time, because it provided me with a ready-made answer. It argued that the comets which occasionally crash into Earth with disastrous results - such as the extinction of the dinosaurs - are perturbed from their normal orbits by interactions with the large-scale structure of the galaxy.

I was reminded of this idea a few years ago when there was a flurry of media interest in Lisa Randall's "dark matter and the dinosaurs" conjecture. I was sufficiently enthusiastic about it to write an article on the subject for Fortean Times - though my enthusiasm didn't quite extend to purchasing her hardback book at the time. However, now that it's out in paperback I've remedied the situation - and I'm glad I did.

Dark matter is believed to exi…