Enhancing Protection in the Face of Pandemics

Dr. Laleen Jayamanne:** in The Island, 19 October 2022, where the title reads thus: “An Insider’s Guide to Pandemics and Biosecurity”

“June Twenty Second Sixteen Thirty-three
A momentous day for you and me
Of all the days that was the one
An age of Reason could have begun”  ….
The Life of Galileo, Bertolt Brecht, 1939

“June Twenty Second Sixteen Thirty-three
A momentous day for you and me
Of all the days that was the one
An age of Reason could have begun”

The Life of Galileo, Bertolt Brecht, 1939

Personal Connections

There is a wonderful long-ago-and-far-away connection between Bertolt Brecht’s play The Life of Galileo (1939), and Raina MacIntyre, the distinguished, internationally respected Lankan-Australian Epidemiologist and University Professor of Global Biosecurity. She is the daughter of Nalini and Ernest MacIntyre, the former a Vice-Principal of Ladies’ College, and the latter a leading member of The Stage and Set theatre group. Mac, as he is known, introduced Brecht’s theatre to Lanka by directing the Chalk Circle.

In 1969, as a little girl growing up in Colombo, Raina MacIntyre played the role of Planet Earth, dressed as a small green sphere, twirling around a larger child, dressed as our sun in the robust Carnival scene on the streets of Venice in Brecht’s play. The telescope, a new invention, was sold as an optical toy in the marketplace; Galileo had repurposed it as a scientific instrument and trained on the firmament, leading to his scientific proof of a heliocentric universe, which Copernicus was only able to posit. The people understood and celebrated the importance of this momentous discovery and created that little skit and songs and pamphlets celebrating the birth of scientific reason. For Brecht’s Galileo science was for the people, for their well-being, not an exclusive possession of a ruling clique who controlled knowledge, wealth and power. He knew that he had betrayed the highest calling of scientific reason by acquiescing to the demands of the all-powerful Holy Inquisition, recanting under threat of torture and death by fire.

In having completed his Discorsi secretly and having it smuggled out of Italy, Galileo did contribute to science but he judged himself harshly for not having stood up to the Church of Rome, in the interests of science. His infamous self-critique on his own lack of an ethical will was addressed to his former student. By that he perhaps hoped that his student, now a physicist himself, willing to risk smuggling his forbidden text out of Italy, might be true to scientific reason.

“Welcome to my gutter, colleague in science and brother in treason…” Galileo

Reading Raina MacIntyre’s timely book Dark Winter: An Insider’s Guide to Pandemics and Biosecurity, one gets a clear impression that the ‘gutter’ has considerably widened with some scientists quite comfortably settled in there and thriving by creating counter-narratives to whatever research topic they happened not to agree with disregarding sound scientific practice. Ethics in the conduct of science is a central concern of this book.

MacIntyre says her aim in writing Dark Winter is to focus ‘a historical lens’ on scientific practices related to pandemics and biosecurity. Staying with MacIntyre’s rhetorically productive technical image of the ‘lens,’ as an instrument which overcomes the limits of natural human perception, she provides us with both a telescopic and a microscopic perception of a certain history of science related to pandemics, outbreak detection and mitigation of biological warfare and bioterrorism – which are her remit.

This is a crisply written book for the lay reader. The normal scholarly steel armature of citations within the text is dispensed with and instead, the references for each chapter are alphabetically provided at the end of the book. It is a bit difficult if one wants to work out which piece of research went with which argument. But the strategy of creating a smooth narrative surface is important for a popular book on science (for which there is an avid readership), without compromising its scholarly rigour. The table of contents makes the book intriguing and inviting. Chapter One, ‘Believe the Unbelievable’, examines an instance of the US military releasing a pathogen into the San Francisco harbour secretly, causing serious urine infections and one death, in the 1950s. Chapter Three, ‘Error not Terror’ deals with the problem of formulating questions so as to guide research. In this instance, the question of whether a pathogen was natural or accidentally or deliberately released from a lab becomes a major professional battle between opposed camps. We are told that many scientists generally resist the lab error explanation and assume that it’s a natural event through animal transmission. The stakes are huge in terms of lab freedom and research funding. This debate has been headline fodder with the absurd politicization of Covid as though it were a virus with ‘Chinese characteristics!’ Chapter Five, ‘Jurassic Park for Viruses’, shows us how what was sci-fi a few decades ago is now available for scientific replication and cloning. Chapter Twelve, ‘Brain-Eating Viruses’, poses the question of how to deal with the emerging long-Covid syndrome, which is unknown territory. She focuses on the problem of protecting children by vaccination and improvement of air quality in classrooms. She poses the question of whether a famous sports star’s sudden death might have been related to his Covid infection. The book concludes with the sombre final chapter, ‘A Biological Winter.’ We can tell that MacIntyre enjoys writing and is a film buff with documentary, sci-fi and zombie horror cult movie interests as well, which she uses to convey scientific ideas pithily.

In the chapter called ‘The Fuss about Face Masks,’ MacIntyre presents her pioneering research on this piece of modest preventive technology, which she began around 2006. During Covid, the mask she promoted for health workers, as the best for an airborne virus, was N95. The major opposition came from infection control specialists who promoted surgical masks instead. Her point is that for such a non-invasive technology to become so politicized, even among specialists, meant that something was not working in society. She says three major factors help in dealing effectively with pandemics, namely good leadership, a culture with a sense of public good and free public health. MacIntyre’s account of major public health institutions, governments and the science publishing industry, both local and global, gives us a historical understanding of how the politics of science worked within the post WW2 international order which included the Cold War. She focuses on epidemics, which didn’t happen naturally but ‘unnaturally’, through lab leaks or deliberate acts of sabotage. In these cases the world does not neatly divide into democracies as honest players and the autocracy of the Soviet Union as bad. The historical examples MacIntyre describes are taken from the US, the USSR and Great Britain and make for chilling reading.

One also learns about the ways in which, in our digital era, Biology has become a limitless field of invention enhancing life but also frequently destroying that very life through what’s called ‘dual-use research’. This kind of research linked to genetic engineering and gene editing, while benefiting humanity may also create pathogens like smallpox synthesized in labs. This process becomes a key to bio-warfare and bio-terrorism. The availability of materials and cheap technology that has led to the creation of DYI private labs which make the creation of biological material easier, poses dangers as they are not fully regulatable.


This book departs from a familiar pop-science genre, say of describing strangely fascinating case histories which Oliver Sacks, for example, does well up to a point, before we lose interest because it becomes just a pile up of empirical case studies, terribly sad though they are. No generalizable ideas or concepts are formulated: about the brain, say, and how it is thought about in the various branches that study it in relation to his case studies. Then there is the philosophically attuned, ever-humorous physician and neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran and his Phantoms in the Brain written with Sandra Blakesley. While he provides basic maps of the brain, which are useful for a layperson, he describes several pathologies including the phenomenon of Synesthesia, which is an inherited trait, or pathology or gift, depending how you look at it. While Ramachandran can describe the pathologies well and has also been able as a clinician to relieve pain in phantom limbs of patients whose limbs have been severed, he doesn’t stay on that plane of descriptive analysis alone. He is bold in his speculative interests, in art and evolution and their links to synesthesia for instance. So his book has a conceptual architecture that does not shy away from formulating ideas and concepts despite its hands-on low-tech clinical base.

MacIntyre’s book works with historical cases studies taken from a global context but it has a strong conceptual architecture able to identify serious institutional problems that make it difficult to promote sound scientifically tested methods to prevent the spread of a pandemic for example. She strongly argues for the absolute necessity of interdisciplinary work in health and biosecurity. She argues eloquently for taking seriously the work done by Law Enforcement and Intelligence as well as work with engineers in developing complex preventive strategies. She actually practises what she preaches by inviting a Law Enforcement official Tom Engells, chief of police at the University of Texas, Ebola research lab, to a high powered conference she organised, because she found his article, ‘The Insider threat – a new aspect of biosecurity’ important. She also arranged for him to give lectures on the topic to her postgraduate class. Her collaboration with him is exemplary of a true interdisciplinary scholar. She does not make the hierarchical professional distinction whereby the scientists are placed on a pedestal while law enforcement folk are treated differently.

This book was written in the midst of the Covid global pandemic when MacIntyre’s several outstanding skills as a public speaker and expertise are in high demand to also (i) address public health issues on TV and (ii) write to the newspapers. In the midst of all this how she found the time and quiet focus needed to write this well-crafted book remains a mystery.

I also want to talk about MacIntyre’s work as a teacher and its links to her book. This is an issue that has been of importance to me since I taught cinema studies at the University of Sydney. In the new century, management made it very clear to us that teaching was not as important as research, and many academics, internalizing this injunction, longed to escape teaching which was handed over to tutors. I note that MacIntyre devised courses directly linked to her pioneering research and co-taught courses at postgraduate level which drew students internationally, especially from Asia. I know from personal conversations how much she enjoys teaching and she mentions two invaluable mentors, Dr Mike Lane and Professor Aileen Plant, who have guided her research just as she must now direct her students whose work she cites. It is worth noting the interlinked connections among her high-stakes research, administrative skills and teaching, the three components of an academic’s work. Especially in an Australian Neo-Liberal University ethos where teaching has been downgraded by managers it is heartening to note how seriously MacIntyre takes her teaching as well. Her sense of the intergenerational transmission of knowledge from guru to student was evident when she decided to do a podcast on her retired mentor Mike Lane, just a few years before he died and discovers with gratitude his past hands-on practice which she knew nothing about. This cherishing of the intergenerational transmission of knowledge and values is a South Asian trait, which I have found rarely in my thirty odd years in the Australian academy.

So, as a guidebook Dark Winter takes us through several circles of hell where scientific reason, and the values that are embodied in such an idea and its practices, have been violated by some scientists and scientific institutions themselves. Most professions have their share of malpractice, as in teaching or in the law but with science the scale of destruction is now planetary. And as an epidemic and biosecurity specialist MacIntyre says that we may be in a pandemic without knowing it for some time. The signs of a smallpox virus camouflaged by a monkey-pox virus are hard to read in a timely manner, we are told. When critical time was lost we all know what happened to the whole world with Covid. The next time might be even less perceptible, especially if those voices from the gutter are the loudest and the most powerful, in the virulent information-wars between scientists. There are indications of the professional difficulties MacIntyre has had as a ‘person of colour’ in an Australian University milieu dominated by white males unused to South Asian female intellectuals saying exactly what they think out loud and clear. Now in my retirement, it’s amusing to see some of these white men, of my long unpleasant acquaintance, scrambling to prove their diversity credentials. What I love about the tone of this book is the sense of deep enjoyment MacIntyre derives from all aspects of her multifaceted work, especially in the training of the next generation of ‘diverse’ researchers. The occasional sardonic whiplash wit is part of it for sure.

But MacIntyre’s book shows us many scientists, teachers and their interdisciplinary colleagues and students working quietly with enormous dedication and ethical awareness of the importance of defending scientific reason against great odds. The book advocates for the importance of an educated citizenry who appreciates science and it is the duty of scientists to make their specialist knowledge accessible also to those of us who have no formal scientific knowledge.

Brecht’s Galileo telescoped 17th Century scientific Reason and 20th Century Instrumental Reason, which saw the rise of Nazi medical experiments and the dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Brecht was rehearsing his play in LA with Charles Laughton as Galileo, when the bombs were dropped in August 1945. He said he didn’t have to change much after the event. That struggle between reason and unreason will not go away any time soon, as pandemics and war are big business, says MacIntyre, and as we see so clearly right now. But in this book, she offers ways in which we as a democratic citizenry can take a more active interest in the scientific debates without leaving it to scientists, governments and corporations to make decisions about life-and-death matters. So, we do need more scientists like MacIntyre, who has a wonderful scientific imagination which enables her to seriously draw on film with flair, as an ally in her task as a populariser of science. I like to imagine that playing Planet Earth as a little girl, and seeing telescopes as toys, might have nourished her imagination, without which scientific reason itself cannot and does not advance.


**  Dr Jayamanne retired earlier as Senior Lecturer in Cinema Studies, University of Sydney

Nalini MacIntyre’s father is none other than Ernest McIntyre, a product of Peradeniya University and a theatrical producer of widespread renown in Sri Lanka, Australia and worldwide. That Laleen should begin her review with a quotation from Brecht is doubly appropriate.

Leave a comment

Filed under accountability, art & allure bewitching, Australian culture, biotechnology, cultural transmission, democratic measures, economic processes, education, governance, heritage, historical interpretation, landscape wondrous, life stories, medical marvels, medical puzzles, performance, population, security, self-reflexivity, sri lankan society, Tamil migration, teaching profession, the imaginary and the real, travelogue, unusual people, welfare & philanthophy, world events & processes

Leave a Reply