Keith Rankin's Thursday Column - Where communism succeeded and capitalism failed
I watched BBC's Horizon programme The Virus the Cures on Prime TV on 11 October.
The programme revealed that we - ie humankind - had discovered a superior cure (to antibiotics) for bacterial infections around the same time that penicillin was being discovered. The research programme on bacteriophages (phages for short) began in Stalin's Georgia in the 1930s. To this day, our knowledge of each of the many thousands of phage viruses remains concentrated in a now rundown laboratory in Tbilisi, Georgia. The arrival of capitalism in the Caucuses threatens a repository of knowledge, built up over 50 years, that could prevent the superbug pandemic that threatens us all next century.
Phages are viruses that live in sewage. Each bacterium has a phage that represents its antidote. As new bacteria strains evolve, new phages evolve in tandem. If there is one thing faster than bacterial evolution, it is virus evolution. Phage therapy is a bit like homeopathy. A person with a bacterial infection must have it accurately diagnosed. Once diagnosed, the physician goes to a phial containing the correct phage, prepares a medicine (phages multiply quickly when allowed to) and administers it. The patient is soon cured, w ithout side effects. If there is a new bacterium, its phage antidote is found eventually. The phage research programme involved a lot of patience: searching, identifying, classifying. Nothing was costly in the capitalist sense. Rather, it was very labour intensive work, performed in Georgia by a dedicated group of publicly-minded scientists.
In the 1940s, agricultural science in the Soviet Union took a backward step. A grasslands' scientist called Lysenko won Stalin's favour. He believed that plant evolution was based on Lamarckian rather than Darwinian principles (progenation deriving from acquired characteristics in the phenotype r ather than solely from genotypes). The name Lysenko has now become a byword for the propensity of centrally planned economies to do bad science and to persevere with it. In western scientific circles, the word 'Lysenko' stifles any attempt to praise Soviet science. (We like to think that anything the Soviets did that worked was stolen from the west by the KGB). Lysenko-type farces are assumed to be rare in capitalist science, and where they do happen, it is assumed that the selective capabilities of capitalism will put a quick and merciful end to bad science.
Interestingly, Darwinian evolution is a biological metaphor of Malthusian economics. And the social Darwinism that underpins much right-wing economics is a capitalist metaphor of the biological theory of natural selection ("the survival of the fittest"). The Lysenko farce was seen to represent a false trail in evolutionary theory; a trail that was allowed to infiltrate policy because it had become politically correct. Under communism, we thought, the rejection mechanism of Popperian science was disabled.
Western capitalism has another kind of correctness that can be at least as disabling; a correctness based on profit, and an unwillingness to check the growth of an industry that is too lucrative to too many people. The story of antibiotics is becoming one of those stories.
An elementary application of Evolution 101 tells us that bacteria evolve. In an antibiotic-rich environment, selective pressure favours those bacteria strains that are resistant to antibiotics. It's virtually a tautology.
The wonder is that we have got away with abusing antibiotic therapy for so long. The antibiotic-resistant superbugs have now arrived. The use of antibiotics as a cure-all is more stupid than anything that happened in the name of Lysenko. Antibiotic therapy used as anything other than a backup medicine defies the basic laws of evolution. As a general means of treating bacterial infections (and as food additives), the use of antibiotics only makes sense in terms of creationist biology. In creation science, all species are fixed. An tibiotic A will cure disease A for all of the time that God grants us.
Why did western medicine not embrace phage therapy? Part of the reason is that western doctors had become enamoured with antibiotics, the new wonder drugs which came to be oversold for profit, and overbought by a public conditioned to believe that infectious disease had been eliminated. Interesti ngly, it took the west - always conservative with respect to public health - a long time to catch onto antibiotics, too. Penicillin, discovered in 1928, was only brought into general use as a war treatment.
Another part of the problem is that phage treatment came across in the west in the 1930s much as any "alternative treatment" does. It had the same credibility problems as homeopathy.
Further, phage therapy may have seemed a bit old-fashioned in an era when we in the west were looking to profit from the application of theoretical science. Taxonomy, with its Victorian era emphasis on identification and classification, was passé, was antiquarian. Apparently phage remedies were oversold in the 1930s by a small group of enthusiasts. We in the west are inclined to over-reject; to reject what we do not understand, or what we do not wish to understand. After all, we have interests to protect. Of course, something new should never be dismissed out of hand simply because some of its benefits are overstated. Nor should an objective science dismiss novelties promoted by politically incorrect people or emerging from politically incorrect socio-economic systems. Yet in reality, capitalist science is as political as is socialist science.
Westerners probably also have a misplaced fear - a sort of luddite fear - of viruses. In our goody-baddy culture, viruses are unambiguously understood to be baddies. (As a child in the 1950s, I remember that "germs" were presented as enemy number one.) Viruses that inhabit sewage possibly seem be yond the pale to western sensibilities. Not the kind of research programme that Macdonald's would want to sponsor.
Another problem is that western capitalism is too much entwined in the English language. The literature on phage remedies was mostly in Russian. It's hard enough to get Anglo-Saxon western scientists to read in French, let alone Russian. After all, "reputable journals" are in English, are they no t?
While there are some genuine reasons why phage treatments of bacterial diseases were overlooked in the 1930s and 1940s, the failure to develop a western research program into bacteriophage treatment in the 1980s and 1990s represents an inexcusable failure of western capitalism. By the 1980s, ther e could be no denial that antibiotic resistance was going to be a major problem in (if not before) the twentyfirst century. Yet, we just didn't want to know about what will probably turn out to be the most important medical breakthrough in the twentieth century; a breakthrough made in communist G eorgia, in Stalin's Soviet Union.
It is embarrassing when western science is out-trumped, especially by the "communists". Usually, when out-trumped, we don't tell anyone. That's what happened here. Not only did we not have the nous to start a western programme in bacteriophage research; we looked the other way when the files of p hials threatened to be destroyed following the breakup of the Soviet Union, and during the little reported civil war that engulfed Georgia a few years ago. So much for the knowledge economies of the west. How can such valuable knowledge be so cheap?
It's not too late for western medicine to enter the post-antibiotic bacteriophage era. Our grandchildren will hardly thank us if we persevere with our corporate-profit-motivated conservatism.
The Soviets were able, eventually, to admit that they were wrong to follow Lysenko. Will we in the west be equally able to admit that we were wrong to put all our medical eggs into the one antibiotic basket, in the process ignoring the most basic tenets of the theory of evolution?