Jason Tetro is a microbiologist and advocate for a healthy public attitude about germs. He says there are 2.5 million different germs in the world, but only a tiny fraction of them are harmful to humans. His new book is The Germ Code: How to Stop Worrying and Love the Microbes.
What is “the germ code” and what does it mean for society?
The germ code refers to the fact that bacteria, viruses, fungi, protozoa and helminths, which essentially are the makeup of what germs are, have this incredible ability to not only evolve at a very rapid rate but also to adapt to almost any environment that they are subject to. When we try to wage war on them they will inevitably find a way to evade or get around the weapons that we use.
That’s had a consequence on the way we’ve been fighting them.
Exactly. We have to stop this mentality of war against germs, because it is a war that we will never win. Instead, we have to learn how to develop a love for the microbe. It’s what I call the ARC of love. It’s comprised of the Appreciation of the fact that we have this relationship. We’re just starting to get that appreciation. Where we really fail is in the R, which is Respect. People don’t respect the fact that germs can evolve at a 200,000 times better rate than us. We evolve every 20 years; germs can evolve every 20 minutes. That lack of respect has really put us in a very poor position.
The third thing is Commitment. We have to have a better relationship. Our commitment has been to wage war and get rid of germs. While we were able to do that with smallpox and rinderpest, we are not going to be able to do that with a series of others. The prime example is polio. June 30, 1998, was supposed to be eradication day for polio, and now we’re actually seeing the virus in a number of areas.
It’s like George W. Bush standing on a battleship with a “Mission Accomplished” banner behind him.
Yes. Back in the 1950s and 60s we actually had the “mission accomplished” banner. And it was unfortunate, because not only had we fooled ourselves into believing we had won, we also left ourselves vulnerable to the fact that those germs are going to come back and make life even worse.
How has the war on germs affected our sex lives?
Our sexual culture has changed more as a result of germs than it ever has for any other reason, be it morality, ethics or government. Whether it be syphilis or gonorrhea or herpes, or now HIV, these were isolated outbreaks that happened, which is normal, just like you would have with the cold that’s going round. But because people didn’t take care of themselves and didn’t take into account the respect you need to have for germs, syphilis basically spread all across Europe. Gonorrhea actually spread worldwide. Herpes continues to be a problem.
One of the more controversial things that I talk about is that the pill actually made things worse. I was expecting to be hammered for that and yet people are in complete agreement. The pill ended up helping gonorrhea spread. It put the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention into a very tough position back in the 1970s. How could you be against the pill, because it was such a wonderful advancement for women? And yet you still had to convince people that they should use barrier protection or they were going to spread this nasty bacterium. It’s even worse now, because gonorrhea is pretty much resistant to every antibiotic.
You and others talk about society entering a “post-antibiotic” age. That’s a scary idea for people, but it also might be a welcome one, based on the way you look at germs.
Absolutely. This is an opportunity for us. We have relied on one weapon for too long. That weapon is literally at a point where it’s no longer going to be useful. We now see people public health authorities essentially saying, Don’t use antibiotics if you don’t have to. But this is how it should have been from the beginning. What it’s now giving us is the opportunity to do is go back to a natural means, where we look at bacteria phages, anti-microbial peptides and other wonderful chemicals that are produced by good germs naturally, that we can harness and employ to fight off gonorrhea and a number of other infections. It’s all natural, and most of all, those bacteria cannot develop resistance. That’s the most beautiful thing about it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.