Gary Grohmann, Canberra, Australia
Gary has had an interest in infectious diseases for as long as he can remember. As a professor and vaccine manufacturing expert, his research has taken him to conferences and research institutions in China, Europe, Japan, USA and elsewhere. Gary studies Sanskrit and philosophy online. He has also made recordings of his piano recitals. Virologists have been in high demand over recent months – so what does going viral mean for him?
I attended a convent boarding school and remember how frightened the nuns were of disease outbreaks: polio, measles, meningitis, mumps and rubella. Every fever and rash was taken very seriously. Some of the children and older nuns had survived polio with the reminders of a limp or partial paralysis in a limb; others had survived smallpox with evident characteristic ‘pock’ marks on their faces.
In the late 50s there were still no vaccines for these diseases in Australia. Simple procedures like regimented handwashing before meals, thorough cleaning and hygiene education were the only tools available. Children were immediately quarantined if sick.
Philosophy as a way of life
The nuns were wonderful and careful teachers, role models of service; they taught us the parables of Jesus as well as the lives of great saints. Thus began my interest in religion and philosophy as a way of life. I had the good fortune to attend a Jesuit secondary school where profound influences like the mottos ‘Men for Others’, and ‘Dare to do’ propelled me into a career serving humanity in some way.
Going viral, phase 1
In my final undergraduate year I heard my first lecture in virology. It was a watershed moment. A sense of wonder and excitement filled me. Unfolding before me was a landscape calling me to get involved. Their beautiful structure, methods of transferring genes, pathology, ability to infect without causing disease, their molecular biology, and evolution – all fascinating!
There was the fact all living things had their own sets of viruses (from oysters to ostriches, bacteria to birds, fish to ferrets, hamsters to humans, – all creatures). Moreover, there is a species barrier; rarely do viruses cross it but when they do the consequences can be fatal (e.g. Rabies, Ebola, bird flu, SARS, HIV).
I could also see how viruses could be used for good in treating disease, especially tumours, and also for gene therapy, acting as little trojan horses delivering their package of genetic information, and also for vaccines.
Then there was the other half of the story – immunology. The immune response was key to recovery but could also be devastating and cause disease (e.g. multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis etc). Vaccines and antiviral drugs were also an essential part of the picture. So, my heart was set on research and investigation.
My lecturer (reluctantly) took me on for an honours year doing research. No one had seen Hepatitis A virus using the electron microscope, and there were only putative reports in the literature…so when I returned a photo of it to him over morning tea, from an outbreak in Australia, he almost fell off his chair.
My first job
In 1978, electron microscopy became my passion and I took a job doing diagnostic work and research into gastrointestinal and respiratory viruses including investigations into disease outbreaks. In the same year I enrolled at the School of Philosophy in Sydney. The early practical exercises philosophy offered, such as coming to rest between actions and giving fine attention were very useful in a busy laboratory setting.
Our group investigated many outbreaks of undiagnosed disease, including illnesses associated with swimming on Sydney beaches. It was obvious that sewage contamination was involved but there were denials from water/sewage treatment providers. So, I set off one Saturday and collected samples from a number of beaches and set up tests over the weekend. The results were astounding, clearly showing viral contamination. My boss was furious that I’d done all this without official permission but happily helped me publish the results. More policy changes ensued and the beaches were cleaned up.
Going viral phase 2 – Environmental issues
My research focus changed when I started an environmental virology lab. for Sydney Water. Here we worked on methods to safely recycle contaminated water for non-drinkable use such as agriculture, industry, and use on parks, golf courses etc. We also developed new ways to treat water and effluents to ensure the environment and human health were protected.
I found myself travelling again, now to eastern Europe, which was desperate for technologies to clean up their water and sewage systems. It was a wonderful collaborative effort between water authorities.
Going Viral, phase 3
In 1997, we moved to Canberra where I took a job heading up the Immunobiology (vaccines) area with the Regulator of medical products in Australia. Over the next 17 years I worked on the regulation of vaccines and other products to ensure their safety and efficacy. There was a lot of consultation with industry and researchers as well as the WHO. Mad cow disease causing variant CJD in humans also raised concerns and work followed to ensure that there was no possibility of contamination of medical products.
Then there was the enormous challenge of influenza. Bird flu had appeared as well as several other pandemic threats and we expanded our laboratory capacity and pandemic plans to prepare. Work with the WHO was a critical element. I found myself on various committees involving influenza strain selection for vaccines and pandemic planning.
I now find myself consulting to private industry in the areas of vaccines, COVID19 and the use of products to control the immune response to help COVID19 patients as well as patients with various malignancies.
So, what about COVID19, which is still going viral?
Its appearance caught everyone by surprise. Realisation quickly dawned that the world was facing a novel virus for which there was no vaccine or treatment. Moreover, it was very infectious and had a high death rate (8%) in people over 70 and anyone with an underlying medical condition. Seasonal influenza by comparison has a death rate of less than 1%. The effectiveness of drugs has so far been marginal.
Vaccines are an essential long-term strategy and will take some years to develop, trial and produce. There is no guarantee of success; it’s a notoriously fickle process and no manufacturer has any experience with these novel vaccines. We will get there, but it will take patience and careful science.
Responses have been different around the world. The approach of strict social distancing, scrupulous hygiene, education/awareness, combined with border closures have worked well in Australia and New Zealand. In the USA, Europe and parts of Asia, the virus appears to have become endemic in the community and easily passed from person to person.
There is a simple principle to control disease outbreaks involving ‘taking the handle off the pump’. It was British doctor John Snow who discovered that cholera was passed by contaminated drinking water in 1854. After careful investigation he asked health authorities to remove the handle off the water pump. Removing the cause controlled the outbreak. Similarly, by closing borders and restricting movement, we can control novel viruses like COVID19. This is equivalent to taking the handle off the pump metaphorically.
Influence of Philosophy
For myself philosophy and science are the same. Both command a sense of wonder, a high level of ethics, searching for the truth, a humanitarian outlook, and stillness. These allow you to ask the right questions. In my experience both teach you a lot about detachment, flexibility, the use of fine attention, and reason. Sanskrit and meditation practice have also been important friends on the way.
When life gets busy, I like to remember – “Only if men could see that they have nothing to do, nothing to claim, nothing to achieve…” (The Record, 1967). I find that leads to rest and detachment.
Listen to a podcast featuring Gary, The Race to a Vaccine: podcast
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