Challenging Virus Scepticism

In defence of science

25th August 2022
Roger Watson

We need to tackle bad science head-on, argues Roger Watson.

Until the appearance of the novel coronavirus, subsequently known as Covid-19, few will have been aware of a tiny group who refer to themselves as ‘virus sceptics’. They eschew the label ‘virus deniers’, despite challenging established scientific orthodoxy regarding the existence of viruses. Leading contemporary exponents of virus scepticism include New Zealand doctors Mark and Sam Bailey, British nurse Dr Kevin Corbett and United States doctors Andrew Kaufman and Thomas Cowan.

Most lay people have little idea what a virus is, despite probably having succumbed to several viral infections in their life, principally cold and influenza and, more recently, Covid-19. A virus is a particle composed of the template of life – the genetic material nucleic acid (DNA or RNA) – around which is wrapped a protein coat. Viruses exist in a twilight zone between being organisms and simply being inert nucleoprotein complexes. They are incapable of reproducing themselves, they depend on being able to enter host cells and the proteins in viruses help them to attach to and enter them. Host cells can include both animal and plant cells.

What is a virus?

Viruses exploit the genetic processes of the cells they infect. Specifically, they must make use of what is referred to as the central dogma of genetics, a process whereby DNA provides a template for the synthesis of RNA which subsequently provides a template for protein synthesis. Proteins are responsible for all the structural and synthetic processes of cells which enable whole organisms, such as the human body, to function.

Viruses may contain either type of nucleic acid: DNA or RNA. If they contain the former, once introduced to cells their DNA becomes integrated into the DNA of the host cell. They hijack the synthetic processes of the host cell to make more copies of the virus. If they contain RNA, then this is not capable of being integrated into the DNA of the host cell. They either use their RNA directly to make other copies of the virus or, with the help of an enzyme known as reverse transcriptase, they can reverse the central dogma of genetics and make DNA which is subsequently integrated into the host cell DNA and used to make copies of the virus. Once sufficient viral particles have been made the host cells will burst, releasing the viral particles which then infect further cells and the process continues until the body has managed to stop this process or, in severe cases, death ensues.

The ill effects we suffer when we become infected by a virus are a result of our immune system trying to neutralise the virus and the toxic substances being released from damaged cells. These include the classic signs of infection resulting from the action of the immune system: pain, fever and tiredness. There is no ‘cure’ for a viral infection and usually symptoms such as pain and fever are dealt with symptomatically. Some antiviral drugs (not without their side effects) exist but are not used routinely and vaccines (also not without potential harms) are effective against some viruses.

How do we know viruses exist?

The existence of viruses has been known for around 100 years. It was first observed that some solutions remained capable of causing infection in plants when passed through porcelain filters which are known to retain bacteria. It became apparent that invisible particles smaller than bacteria – which are relatively easily viewed in a light microscope – existed that could cause infection. The search began for what these were. Since then a number of different viruses have been purified, crystallised, visualised under electron microscopes, sequenced, manipulated and used in research and therapy to introduce new DNA into the genome of cells.

Germ theory and terrain theory

Before considering virus scepticism it is necessary to consider two relevant theories. The first of these is germ theory which replaced the theory of spontaneous generation, very popular until the end of the nineteenth century. Florence Nightingale, for example, was a believer in spontaneous generation. The theory of spontaneous generation provided an explanation of how living organisms could arise from non-living material such as heaps of rubbish giving rise to rats; liquids and foods becoming inedible after time and infections arising in wounds. This theory was firmly disproved by Louis Pasteur in his famous swan-necked flask experiment which showed, unequivocally, that living organisms did not arise spontaneously in non-living matter: they were introduced.

Terrain theory is, essentially, the other side of the coin of the theory of spontaneous generation and, in fact, is simply germ theory denialism. The theory ascribes disease to internal factors, the condition of the body or the terrain, and considers that if this is disordered then that is the cause of, for example, ‘infection’. Thus, terrain theory proposes that correcting the terrain is more important than avoiding or even treating infection. Adherents to terrain theory eschew allopathic medicine—the use of medications such as antibiotics and, of course, vaccines, in favour of naturopathic medicine. This inevitably involves addressing a host of factors such as diet, sleep and exercise.

The theory has verisimilitude as few would deny the importance of these factors for health. However, some terrain theorists also offer vague advice for health such as ‘balance your autonomic nervous system’ with imbalances apparently detectable using ‘digital photoplethysmography’. Some also advocate dietary supplements such as ‘liposomal colostrum’. It should be noted that neither the diagnostic test nor the use of the dietary supplement is evidence based, both are costly and, of course, can be purchased from a terrain theorist.

What do the virus sceptics say?

Put simply, virus sceptics deny the existence of viruses, are fiercely anti-vaccinations, eschew allopathy and adhere to terrain theory. Their beliefs are probably best explained in a book that has biblical status among them: Virus Mania by Torsten Engelbrecht and Claus Köhnlein, first published in 2007. A more recent edition includes contributions from authors such as Dr Sam Bailey.

Again, verisimilitude is used to suggest that Robert Koch, considered the founder of modern bacteriology, and Louis Pasteur were scientific frauds. Neither of these men were angels, both were ambitious, got a great deal wrong and probably pushed their theories beyond the evidence they gathered. These flaws are not unknown among men of science, even today, and they operated in a period when scientific standards such as peer review, replication and the application of statistical methods did not exist. But regarding the existence of bacteria and germ theory, they have not been disproved.

Despite demonising Edward Koch, the virus deniers repeatedly indicate that the existence of viruses does not meet Koch’s famous postulates. However, these postulates were originally derived for bacteria and were even abandoned in Koch’s lifetime. The first of these postulates states that: ‘The microorganism must be found in abundance in all organisms suffering from the disease but should not be found in healthy organisms.’ But both infectious bacteria and viruses can be found in healthy people so the first postulate no longer stands and neither does the second postulate which was that: ‘The microorganism must be isolated from a diseased organism and grown in pure culture.’ Viruses cannot be grown in pure cultures – as well the virus sceptics know – and neither can some bacteria, clearly established as infective agents. Science progresses to take account of subsequent findings which, in the Popperian sense, disprove previous theories.

The virus sceptics insist that viruses have not been ‘isolated’ and are especially vocal about this regarding Covid-19. But while viruses are hard to ‘isolate’ in a way that the sceptics say would satisfy them, the evidence for their existence is abundant. Most recently a leading group of virus sceptics has issued a challenge called Settling the Virus Debate which, if accomplished by scientists, they claim would be proof enough to satisfy them that viruses exist. The experiments seem reasonable, although science does not work by proof, but by disproof of extant theory. Their ‘proof’ rests largely on ‘purifying’ a virus – in this case Covid-19 – which they know cannot be purified. They do not offer to fund the experiments.

They also ask for electron microscopic and DNA sequencing proof that Covid-19 exists. But regarding the former, they inevitably claim that what is seen are artefacts of the method – involved in the preparation of samples for electron microscopy and that what is being viewed are cellular fragments and not a virus. Regarding genetic sequencing, they say that this is not proof as so many ‘variants’ have been sequenced meaning that this is also, most likely, an artefact of the method. Viruses have short and rapidly replicating strands of nucleic acid which use the genetic machinery of the host cell to replicate. It is hardly surprising that variants exist given that, due to mutations (mainly harmless) and mistakes in the replication of DNA no two cells in the human body are precisely genetically identical.

You may wonder how the virus sceptics explain what most people have observed and experienced: the spread of viral infections between people. They either dismiss this as mass hysteria or argue that families who eat the same food and live in the same house have similar terrains.

In their frequent challenges to the medical and biological sciences communities, the virus sceptics have tried to establish themselves as the arbiters of what constitutes proof of the existence of viruses. Meanwhile, the mainstream scientific community moved on a long time ago to see what, based on the substantial evidence for the existence of viruses, we can learn about them and from them, how we can tackle the ones that infect us and how we can exploit them. The virus sceptics, many of whom have books, podcasts and naturopathic remedies to sell, not only risk hindering this process, they seek to profit from the confusion they sow.

Roger Watson is a retired academic, editor and writer. He is a columnist with Unity News Network and writes regularly for a number of journals including The Salisbury Review and The European Conservative. He has travelled and worked extensively in the Far East and the Middle East.

Photo by Viktor Forgacs on Unsplash.