How Viruses Have Shaped Our World

27:36 minutes

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The alphabet soup of viruses that infect us may seem long and daunting. But as scientist and author Joseph Osmundson writes in Virology: Essays for the Living, the Dead, and the Small Things In Between, these viruses are vastly dwarfed by the total number of harmless or even beneficial viruses on our planet. “It’s a rounding error larger than zero,” he writes. A single ounce of seawater will contain more than seven billion individual viruses incapable of doing us harm.

Osmundson’s book is both COVID-19 quarantine memoir, and reflections of a self-described queer man coming of age after the identification of the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS. In it, he questions the war-like language we ascribe to “fighting” pathogens, explores the non-binary nature of health and illness, and advocates for a world where we are more ready to care for each other.

“The problem wasn’t illness,” he writes of HIV’s death toll before the development of effective treatments. “The problem never is. Illness is a fact of life. The problem is our inability to provide care to all.” 

Osmundson talks to producer Christie Taylor about making new meanings for viruses through biomedicine and public health interventions. Plus, lessons for the monkeypox global public health emergency, and all the viruses to come.

Read an excerpt from Virology: Essays for the Living, the Dead, and the Small Things In Between.

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Segment Guests

Joseph Osmundson

Joseph Osmundson is a clinical assistant professor of Biology at New York University, and author of Virology: Essays for the Living, the Dead, and the Small Things In Between (Norton, 2022).

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.

From HIV to COVID to monkeypox, viruses have been on our minds lately. Of course, viruses are no strangers. From the common cold, to cold sores, to shingles, we’ve always had to deal with them. SciFri Producer Christie Taylor is here with reflections from one microbiologist about living through multiple viral crises.

Hey, Christie.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Hey, there, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Why do I get the impression we are about to get philosophical today?

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Well, as you know, Ira, we live on a planet of viruses. There are more individual viruses on Earth than there are stars in the universe. An ounce of ocean water contains more than 7 billion viruses. And almost all of them are harmless to us.

IRA FLATOW: When I think about it, yeah. Some are even helpful– like phages, which can kill harmful bacteria.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Right, exactly. But as you mentioned, a few touch our lives in really major ways. We’ve been covering the anxiety and uncertainty around monkeypox, for example. And there’s the virus that causes COVID. But there’s also the trauma of HIV and the AIDS crisis, which has shaped many, many lives, even since the advent of effective treatments.

I talked to Dr. Joseph Osmundson. He’s a self-described queer scientist, who teaches microbiology at New York University. And he has a new book out, called, Virology: Essays for the Living, the Dead, and the Small Things in Between. It’s part COVID quarantine diary, part meditation on his experience as a queer man, growing up in a world where HIV has always existed. And he’s got a little bit of praise also for the sheer beauty of viruses as well.

IRA FLATOW: Beauty? I guess. I guess in the same way a Cruise Missile is a thing of beauty. So I’m not quite sure I can agree here.

I know. I know. I see where you’re coming from, Ira. But by the end of his book, I too was a convert. However, we did just start by talking about the basics– what a virus is and how it does so much for something so small.

JOSEPH OSMUNDSON: In general, we think about life conforming to what biologists call a central dogma. And the main component of the central dogma is that genes– genetic information– is always, always, always, always– capital A– encoded in DNA. And there are particular mechanisms through which genes get activated and turned into their protein products.

Viruses don’t even follow that basic tenet of life. So there are RNA viruses that encode their genome, their genetic material, in RNA. There are single-stranded RNA viruses, double-stranded RNA viruses, single-stranded DNA viruses, double-stranded DNA viruses. And each virus is just trying to copy itself. So it will do whatever evolution has taught it to do to make more copies of itself.

So the virus is going to use itself plus you– so its cell plus your cell– to copy itself. And we classify viruses in different ways. One is by the genetic material it has– RNA versus DNA. Another is whether the viral infection is acute or persistent. Some viruses, like HIV, like herpes virus, once you get infected with it, that virus will live in your cells for the rest of your life.

SARS-COV-2, the virus that causes COVID, is an acute virus. The virus comes in, copies itself a bunch, and when your immune system clears it, the virus has left your body.

Viruses are curious, magical, wonderful, horrifying little things. And each virus solves the problem of replication, of copying itself, in its own unique way.

The images that we see of viruses– like that famous kind of gray ball for SARS-COV-2– that is actually what that virus looks like under an electron microscope, plus some additional structural data from higher resolution methods.

So when you look at those graphics, that actually is– if you had an eye small enough to see– that really is what a virus looks like. The scale bar that you need is the cell that it would infect. And the cell is 1,000-fold or more larger than that. So the virus would be just a tiny dot compared to the size of your cell.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: And you alluded to this a moment ago when talking about HIV. I think another famous example is herpes. People who get cold sores have herpes forever. Why am I– not just me– but me plus herpes?

JOSEPH OSMUNDSON: Yeah. And they’re two really interesting examples. Because HIV is with you in your T-cells. Because when it infects your cell, as part of its life cycle, it literally cuts itself into your DNA. So your DNA, your molecule of heredity, in those cells, that will be passed on to the offspring of all of those cells, become a virus-human hybrid. And so that means that the virus obviously can pass from you to another person. But it will also pass from your cells, your T-cells, to all of your future T-cells.

Herpes is a little bit of a different example, because it actually doesn’t integrate into your DNA. Its DNA makes what’s called an episome. But that stays. That episome knows how to copy itself and stay with you.

So the way I think about herpes infection is your DNA doesn’t become a human-herpes hybrid, but herpes is always in your cell. And it is always probably replicating at some low level. And your immune system is talking to that replication. And your immune system is turning it down. And the herpes is rolling along. And so it’s mostly, for a lot of folks, if you’re stressed or you have a dip in immunity, then the virus talks a little louder. And on top of being stressed, you have a cold sore.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: And then you’re stressed about that.

JOSEPH OSMUNDSON: And then you’re stressed about that, and onward we go.

I think herpes really reframes, for me, and other very common viruses, like Epstein-Barr virus, what it means to be a person. Because most people have herpes. We have to acknowledge that a small number of people who have herpes, it’s sort of a debilitating illness. They have outbreaks all the time. And those people deserve better biomedicine and better care.

And at the same time, having herpes is totally normal. Most people do. And for most people, it’s very manageable. And there’s even some research that I talk about in my book, that herpes actually is activating the immune system to fight particular bacterial or parasitic infection. So in that way, you can almost think about a herpes infection as a component of your own immune.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Wow. That’s really cool. I feel like I should be saying, thanks, herpes.

JOSEPH OSMUNDSON: It’s like, go herpes, in this context.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: And some viruses kill bacteria for us.

JOSEPH OSMUNDSON: So that’s what I did my PhD on. I was studying a bacteriophage. So these are viruses that only infect bacteria. And the virus I was studying infected Staph bacteria. So these are actually viruses that have been used in humans. The virus that I studied came from biomedical research in Georgia– the country Georgia– where it was actually used as a therapeutic for people who had Staph infections.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: That’s amazing.

JOSEPH OSMUNDSON: So it’s sort of the enemy of your enemy is your friend type of a situation.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: I feel like there’s a handshake meme in there.

JOSEPH OSMUNDSON: I like the Spider-Man one. The two Spider-Mans pointing at one another.

And the other fun thing about the virus that I studied in my PhD is just how– really digging, I looked at every single– maybe 200 genes in that sucker. I looked at every single one of them. And like 80% of them were not related to any other known protein. Which doesn’t happen in living things. Living things are related to other living things. Whereas viruses evolve in these spaces and these ways that they can be super special little snowflakes.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: And you’ve used some pretty admiring-sounding language already in this conversation. I think you said “wondrous” at one point about viruses. What’s your emotional relationship with these– I don’t even know if organism or life form is even the right word– but tell us about your feelings, Joe.

JOSEPH OSMUNDSON: They’re definitely not– oh, god, a science question about my feelings. This is deeply my brand. They’re definitely not an organism. I call them a life form. Because they cannot replicate themselves, so they’re not, to a biologist, living. I use the word awesome to talk about viruses, in the sort of original sense of that word.

As a queer person who was born in 1983, around the six months where HIV was shown to cause what was then called GRID and is now called HIV/AIDS, I’ve never not understood the deadly impact of a virus and the emotional weight of queer bodies being put in black plastic garbage bags and left on the street, because hospitals didn’t want to deal with them– people being rejected by their families.

I cannot take my lived experience away from the horror– the true horror– the horror of HIV/AIDS, both in the ’80s, ’90s, and still now, because people are still getting HIV and people are still dying of AIDS, and in this country. The horror that was 2020– the absolute abject horrific experience that has been watching people, including two of my very dearest friends, get monkeypox and have to isolate for weeks on end.

It is remarkable how profoundly viruses have impacted every aspect of our lives at this point. And yet, the vast majority– there are more viruses on Earth there are stars in the sky. The vast majority of viruses are phage, that infect only bacteria.

I had to undo a lot of my thinking about viruses and focus only on HIV/AIDS as a viral model. And part of that was undoing shame and stigma that I had put on myself. That said, if I ever became HIV-positive, I would be less desirable. I would love myself less. I would have less sex. And that was shame and stigma I had to undo in myself even.

HIV is a horror. It is a particle with nine genes made out of RNA. And we have 40 trillion cells and 22,000 genes and 3.2 billion unique letters of genetic information. And RNA has figured out how to get into our cells, replicate in them, and even kill us if we don’t have biomedicine. And so there is something awesome in that power that it has, and essential to understand how that works. Because through understanding that awesome power, we can actually invent interventions. And we have.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: You’re writing here too about the meaning of viruses and how that meaning changes. And the invention of the biomedicine Truvada, which is pre-exposure prophylaxis, has changed the meaning of HIV also. And I should also acknowledge the antiretroviral therapy as well for people living with HIV. How has the meaning of HIV changed both personally and socially in the decades since it first emerged?

JOSEPH OSMUNDSON: This is like one of the biggest thrusts of my book. It’s not to feel nihilistic and helpless in the face of plague or a virus. It’s to understand that the virus, our body, and biomedicine make meaning together. And each one of those three things is able to shift meaning.

I think it’s as essential– you equals you, which you mentioned– that someone who is HIV-positive, and undetectable because they’re controlling HIV replication with antiretrovirals, it is impossible for that person to transmit HIV. It does not and cannot happen. Which means, actually, that someone who’s HIV-positive is the safest sex partner you can have for HIV transmission.

And that broke my brain open in the best way. That biomedical intervention, that really incredible science that took many years to show that incontrovertibly, made me love myself differently. Because I could love myself as someone who is HIV-negative and HIV-positive. And it made me think about sex with people with HIV in a completely different way.

So in 2012, before we had a pill to prevent HIV, whether or not a condom broke or you wanted to use one, to 2022– 10 years– when you have the knowledge that HIV-positive people are your safest sex partners in terms of HIV transmission, and I can take a pill to make my risk so close to zero itself– HIV’s meaning, it just shifts in profound ways that, for me at least, have undone some of the trauma of having grown up in the shadow of HIV.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: This is Science Friday, from WNYC Studios.

If you’re just joining us, I’m Christie Taylor. And I am talking to microbiologist and author Joseph Osmundson. He’s the author of the book, Virology: Essays for the Living, the Dead, and the Small Things in Between.

Do you think that shadow, and the trauma from those plague years, when HIV was not survivable– do you think that’s given gay men and other LGBTQ people a different relationship with infectious disease?

JOSEPH OSMUNDSON: It certainly has given us the lived experience of doing harm reduction around infectious disease and a viral infection. Because, for many years, and still today, when you have sex, you are making a large number of complex decisions around risk for HIV and other infectious diseases that are generally front of mind for us.

And so when you talk about COVID risk reduction or biomedical acceptance, right– am I going to get the vaccine for SARS-COV-2? Well, gay people got that vaccine at higher rates than almost any other group. Because we’re like, I would quite like to go back to being social without as much worry about getting an infection that could kill me. And oh, hey, there’s a biomedical intervention? That’s great.

And I think the focus really needs to be on equity and how we imagine the gay community as one thing and how the gay community, in actuality, or the queer community or our sexual network, is an entirely other thing. And that people in rural areas, people of color, Black and Brown people, and Indigenous people in particular, are often left out of our imagination. And that also leaves them outside of access to care that has become routine for many upper middle-class gay men in New York City.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: And you’re talking about the expense of these drugs?

JOSEPH OSMUNDSON: It’s not just the expense. Because there are interventions to make PrEP affordable for most people. It’s also, if you talk about the rural South, homophobia of health care providers. Some people literally live 60-plus miles from their nearest clinic. Do they have health insurance? Has information about PrEP even gotten out to them? I have a gay doctor in Chelsea. And so he’s just like, what’s your PrEP deal? And I’m like, this is my PrEP deal. And then we sort it out. It’s very easy.

That is not the case for everybody, right? So it is the cost, yes. But it is a million things, in addition to the cost, that have direct and dramatic impact on accessibility.

All of these lessons of HIV, about who is still seroconverting, who’s still getting HIV today– and it’s largely Black and Brown people, a lot of folks in the rural South, people outside of our imagination of gay sexual networks, and people outside of our imagination of the queer community– biomedicine is never enough. Biomedicine is magical. HIV meds save lives. They pulled people back from the brink of death in 1996. And yet, I have a friend who I know whose parents died of HIV, both, including one in and around 1996, because they weren’t able to access those pills soon enough.

There are people even now who get their HIV-positive diagnosis when they are presenting with AIDS, because they’ve been living with HIV without knowing it for years. So biomedicine is magical. But biomedicine without access– global access– is never, ever enough.

IRA FLATOW: Christie, we need to take a quick break. But when we come back, more from your conversation with NYU Microbiologist Joseph Osmundson, about how viruses are shaping our lives.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.

We’ve been listening to producer Christie Taylor’s interview with Microbiologist Joe Osmundson, about growing up in the post-HIV world, how COVID-19 changed us, and how viruses may shape our lives in the future. His new book is, Virology: Essays for the Living, the Dead, and the Small Things in Between. Here’s more from that conversation.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: I want to go back to your book for a moment, to the COVID-19 pandemic, where you write about the initial months of quarantine in 2020. You created a pod, so you could see a couple of friends safely still. What felt important about sharing this experience in a book-length meditation on viruses?

JOSEPH OSMUNDSON: What I learned from reading folks who had written about the experience of HIV in the ’80s and ’90s, it can be very dangerous to live through a trauma and not look at it closely. I lived in New York, which was profoundly impacted by fatalities. I mean, 24 hours a day, you could hear sirens in the distance, carrying the sickest New Yorkers to the hospital, where they may or may not get the care that they need.

That lived experience of how we tried to care for one another in the face of that, and how horrible it was and how magic other people were, was essential to really, really sit with profoundly– to say, this is something that we need to emotionally process.

Now, do I love looking back on that, given that COVID is still killing people, and now monkeypox is here? It’s an ongoing profound emotional experience. But I do think it’s helpful to allow ourselves to feel even as we’re still in it, and allow ourselves to remember that profound experience, and learn from it. Try to take how we cared for each other in spring and summer of 2020, to continue that, to do that hard work of putting the care community and harm reduction at the forefront of our thoughts and minds, even years later.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah. And you write about this vision of care. You also write about some of the activism you were involved in with COVID, in trying to get New York City to shut down earlier than it did. And there were so many different kinds of response, even across the country, around the world– even within New York City. But why did people behave in different ways in response to this very sudden terrifying time?

JOSEPH OSMUNDSON: Yeah. I mean, people deal with trauma differently. And there were systemic and governmental failures in messaging, in providing people the tools that they needed to isolate, to make sure that people had money in their pocket to pay their rents if their work was interrupted. I mean, the essay about my pod and the essay about activism, I view those both– the community care and the activism we were doing– as a way to love. Because one is interpersonal care, and then activism at its best is care extended into politics.

And the RNA sequencing we tried to do, like Seattle did, that actually successfully got Seattle shut down very early in March, we failed.


JOSEPH OSMUNDSON: We didn’t get the samples we needed to get the information to force politicians to do the right thing based on science. And tens of thousands of people died who did not need to die.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: As of last week, the CDC has relaxed the guidelines requiring quarantine after exposure to COVID-19. How does this relate to the vision of care that you tried to express in virology?

JOSEPH OSMUNDSON: Girl, girl, girl, girl, girl. Oh, lord. I mean, it’s so funny. Because the CDC is arguing that this is, quote, unquote, meeting people where they’re at. Which is an important notion in public health. You don’t show up at someone’s home and yell at them. You provide lots of options to mitigate risk that accepts that not everyone is able to do the very best perfect thing.

We’ve been having this fight with monkeypox as well. Isolation for monkeypox is four to five weeks. And the guidance is to isolate. But we also acknowledge that not everyone cannot go grocery shopping for four or five weeks, right? What are people going to do?

And so we provide guidance that, if you do have to leave the home, wear a mask, cover all your lesions. Meeting people where they’re at is not, get on an airplane and don’t wear a mask. We don’t have any guidance that says to isolate after you test positive. That’s not care.

And this is so deeply tied to capitalism– to the fact that the government views itself as getting out of the way of people making people work when they’re sick– like they used to before COVID. Policies like universal health care and universal sick leave are the solutions to this problem.

If you look at the UK’s monkeypox data, they have way fewer cases per capita than the US, and the cases are now falling. They actually had fewer vaccines per capita, but had enough of a public health infrastructure that they could test and trace all the cases and keep the number down with non-pharmaceutical interventions, largely. That’s what’s so frustrating. It’s not rocket science, people.


JOSEPH OSMUNDSON: But the notion of ripping off the Band-Aid and saying, go do whatever you want, it’s just really insulting to all of us who have been trying to both lead with care in our individual lives and then also advocate for care being center of public policy.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Let’s talk about monkeypox. Even as public health experts are stressing that the virus is not solely a sexually transmitted infection, and even as people are being very wary and careful about stigma against LGBTQ people, who are the majority of the patients so far– even so, we’re seeing high-profile newspaper and magazine editorials urging queer men, and others in their sexual networks, to have less sex. As someone talking about harm reduction this whole interview, what is your reaction?

JOSEPH OSMUNDSON: Man, the problem is not communicating to people that we need to, for a time, probably change our sexual behaviors. The thing is this came from the community of people who have the most sex. Everyone knew everyone who was sick. Everyone had a friend who was ill, and saw how horrible it was, and didn’t want to get sick.

This community, the very community of people that I’m in, has been making guidance that includes telling people that altering their sexual behaviors will lower their risk for infection. But also does not stigmatize group sex or going to a sauna or bathhouse or having multiple partners on Grindr, and says, we need to wait until we get the biomedicine to protect us. And then we need to study how well that biomedicine protects us– largely vaccine.

It is infuriating that the vaccine situation has been so horrific. So many people I know wanted to get vaccines, couldn’t get vaccines, and then got sick. And that is a crime. So it’s coming from this fine line, this threaded needle, this knife blade edge, right, that says community should be leading, we need to give people information, but we also need to not stigmatize this type of sex.

And when a piece gets published in The Atlantic that opens with a 1927 bathhouse scene, talking about the men being ghosts and not being able to look at each other, and cites Larry Kramer and everyone else who agreed that promiscuous sex gets in the way of intimacy, it is just doing harm to the community that’s already suffering. It is implying that people got sick out of a lack of self-control, as opposed to out of a lack of tests, treatment, and vaccines. And the community is really insulted. It feels patronizing. And people are angry.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Sure. If viruses are inherent to the world we live in, as we started out this conversation acknowledging, and we’re going to remain in conversation with them for the entirety of our existence as a species, what is your vision for how we can do better to reduce the death and pain of that conversation in the future?

JOSEPH OSMUNDSON: Biomedicine is an incredible human invention. And we need every nation, everyone on Earth, should have their people able to do research science on the priorities of the folks who live there. So it should not be the US shipping our monkeypox technology to Nigeria, although that is an immediate goal. But why does Nigeria and why does The Congo not have the biomedical infrastructure themselves? Well, it’s because of Colonial extraction of the wealth of those nations and neocolonial interactions between their governments and ours continuing that wealth extraction.

So I think viruses point us to the harms that we do to one another. And we will never eradicate the risk of a viral infection– a new viral infection, an old viral infection. But if we lead with care, and if we look to the places where viruses have shown us that we’ve done harm to one another and try to repair that harm, through that act of reparation, we will be protecting ourselves and one another from all viral threats.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Joe, thank you so much for the time today.

JOSEPH OSMUNDSON: Oh, this was such a great conversation. Thank you so much for having me.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Dr. Joseph Osmundson teaches microbiology at New York University, in New York City. His book is Virology: Essays for the Living, the Dead and the Small Things in Between. And we’ve got an excerpt, if you want to take a look, up on our website. That’s at sciencefriday.com/virology. That’s sciencefriday.com/virology.

I’m Christie Taylor.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you, Christie.

Our coverage of monkeypox is continuing as this global health emergency unfolds. We have a Q&A from past experts up on our website for you right now– sciencefriday.com/monkeypox. Again, sciencefriday.com/monkeypox.

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About Christie Taylor

Christie Taylor was a producer for Science Friday. Her days involved diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.

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