ALVESTON, Texas — Drive a few minutes from the seawall here, where the Gulf of Mexico crashes into this island city, and follow some meandering streets through a subdivision of graceful, low-slung homes. Look for the one with the Mardi Gras doll hanging beside the front door.
There you will find a scientific mind of the first order.
At 77, Clarence James Peters, known as C.J., is getting on, walking with more deliberate steps than in his earlier years. But he can still recount in sharp detail anecdotes from a career in which he flew through mountain passes to perilous landing strips and trudged to remote villages. By the time he returned home, he had stolen from Mother Nature some of the secrets of diseases including Bolivian hemorrhagic fever and Rift Valley fever.
Peters was a virus hunter. That often meant spending time in the field, mostly in Latin America but also in Africa, where the work was interesting and the bosses far away. “If you’re in the shadow of the flagpole from headquarters, you’re in trouble,” he explained. “Because there will be somebody poking into everything you’re doing.”
Virus hunting today is not what it used to be. There is still adventure to be had, with bold scientists seeking to uncover the mysteries of the unseen world and ultimately benefit human health. But things have also changed.
There are so many more rules, enforced far more strictly. Voluminous material transfer agreements are required to transport a sample of an interesting virus across borders.
In Peters’s time, scientists were known, on occasion, to bring home viral trophies surreptitiously — they called that flying “VIP,” for “vial in pocket.”
Front-line disease surveillance and control work is also coming under the knife. With U.S. funding for global heath receding, planning is already underway to scale back field stations operated around the world by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I think that’s the biggest mistake they could possibly make — next to doing away with CDC in this country,” Peters scoffed.
Peters was hardly the only renowned virus hunter of his generation. There was the legendary Karl Johnson, who discovered the virus that causes Bolivian hemorrhagic fever and who named Ebola, and Joseph McCormick, author of “Level 4: Virus Hunters of the CDC.” (Not to be confused with Peters’s “Virus Hunter: Thirty Years of Battling Hot Viruses Around the World.”)
But former colleagues — most of them, anyway — remember Peters with a particular fondness. He is a character, one known for wearing Hawaiian print shirts, cursing more than occasionally, and having a healthy disregard for rules.
“I can remember getting so mad at him, because he was very disarming,” recalled Johnson, under whom Peters worked for a time. “If you caught him, he would apologize like heck and it did seem to be sincere. And then when you would watch, he never did that again. … He then put his head to thinking what else could he do that he had not yet been challenged on.”
Now retired from the Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch, the stories Peters tells paint a picture of a golden age of virus hunting, when scientists often did first and asked second. Like the time Peters found himself driving through suburban Washington, D.C., with five plastic-wrapped monkeys, their frozen corpses teeming with Ebola viruses, in the trunk of his car.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The monkeys come later.
Peters, who still speaks with a soft drawl, grew up in the 1940s and 1950s in Odessa, a town in West Texas. He left to go university, getting a degree in chemistry from Rice and then a medical degree from Johns Hopkins. After completing his internship and residency in Dallas, he had an important choice to make.
It was 1968 and the United States was still at war in Vietnam; newly minted doctors had no choice but to serve in some capacity. Peters had zero interest in going to Vietnam as an Army field doctor, nor was he keen to work in an induction center checking recruits for hernias.
But there was a Door No. 3 — joining the Public Health Service and working for two years either at the National Institutes of Health or the CDC. He opted for the former, and asked to be sent to the (since disbanded) Middle America Research Unit — MARU — in the Panama Canal Zone to work under Johnson.
“One of the reasons I went to Panama was that Karl had discovered Bolivian hemorrhagic fever, both isolating the virus and also discovering it the hard way by getting infected,” he noted.
In typical Peters style, he decided to drive through Central America to get to his new job, arriving a month late. He picked up a case of hepatitis along the way.
Johnson, now 88, recalls Peters was “the most ambitious” of the people who worked under him in Panama. “I have to say that of all the people who ever worked with me, younger people who ever worked with me, he was the best informed over the years of anyone I ever knew.”
The MARU years saw Peters in the field in Bolivia, Argentina, and Costa Rica, as well as Panama. One outing, to a Bolivian hemorrhagic fever outbreak in Cochabamba, led to the observation that the Machupo virus — which Johnson had discovered — spreads more often from person to person than had been previously recognized. (The main mode of transmission is contact with the urine or feces of infected field mice.)
The new information led to the realization that hospitals could amplify outbreaks and needed to take precautions against patient-to-patient spread.
This is the kind of knowledge that can’t be discovered by holing up in a laboratory.
“A lot of times the secrets of the disease don’t come out readily until you’re in the area where it naturally occurs, like with Lassa [fever] and Machupo and Zika,” Peters said. “You tell those stories to people who say: ‘Well, you don’t need to have those field stations, people working over here and there. You just stay here in the center and work with samples.’
“The field stations are extremely valuable.”
Peters does not subscribe to the notion that when it comes to infectious diseases, America can protect itself by focusing only on what’s happening at home. “Fences don’t keep viruses out,” he said flatly.
“If you’re in the shadow of the flagpole from headquarters, you’re in trouble. Because there will be somebody poking into everything you’re doing.”
The monkey story makes his case in spades.
After Panama, Peters joined the Army to work as a research scientist at Fort Detrick, Md., at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, or USAMRIID.
By 1989, he was chief of the institute’s disease assessment division when monkeys imported from the Philippines for research purposes started to die en masse. The monkeys were being held at a quarantine station in Reston, Va. — not far from Dulles International Airport and uncomfortably close to the heart of the nation’s capital.
Blood samples worked up by Peters’s team showed what looked like the Marburg virus, a close cousin to Ebola. Further testing revealed it was a new species of Ebola. Ebola “just up the road from the White House” was a heart-stopping thought.
“We were kind of puckered,” said Peters, the word — a favorite — describing what fear will do to a certain bodily orifice.
Peters and others scurried to figure out what was going on, all the while desperately afraid that it would all become public before they knew what was happening.
What they knew was that they needed to get some of the monkey corpses to high biocontainment labs in Maryland for autopsies. But the monkeys were in Virginia. Even at a time when there were fewer rules than today, transferring the animals across state lines was definitely out of bounds.
“What are you going to do? We were here in Virginia with dead monkeys and the containment facilities and the pathologists were in Maryland,” Peters recalled.
So they just did it. Vehicles were dispatched from the Reston facility and from the Maryland labs to meet at a gas station to make the handoff.
“It was one of these filling stations with a lot of outdoor phone booths. And there were people in there talking about, ‘Should I bring home a loaf of bread, dear?’ But nobody saw anything. … And we just drove them on back.”
Of the corners cut and rules not observed during the outbreak, Peters later learned that bringing “medical waste” — as the dead monkeys were considered — across a state line without a license and in an unauthorized vehicle was the worst of them.
“That made me very glad that I had just gone ahead and done it,”’ he said. “It just goes to show you: Sometimes it’s better to do something and ask for forgiveness later.”
During the Reston incident, people working in the monkey facility and on the monkey specimens were closely observed for signs they might have contracted Ebola. Concerns heightened when one of the workers abruptly went missing.
It later turned out he had been in a hospital, having a toe amputated because of his diabetes. That operation could have had catastrophic consequences if he had contracted one of the two known Ebola species at the time — Zaire and Sudan.
Fortunately, he had not. And the monkeys had not, either. They had Ebola Reston, as the species has since been named. It can infect people but it doesn’t make them ill. It is, however, lethal for monkeys.
“He did a very fine job on the Reston thing,” Johnson said of Peters.
A couple of years after the Reston outbreak, Peters joined the CDC as head of the viral special pathogens branch — those are the scientists who work on the worst of the worst viruses. And there, in 1993, he was the person to suggest a hantavirus — until then not known to circulate in the United States — might be responsible for an alarming spate of fatal pulmonary illnesses in previously healthy people in the American Southwest.
Disease investigators were at a loss to explain the illnesses, which had a rapid onset and progression. Local and state public health authorities eventually — reluctantly, in some cases — turned for help to the CDC.
Dr. Jim Hughes, who was director of the agency’s National Center for Infectious Diseases at the time, called together a team made up of everyone he thought might have ideas about what was behind the outbreak.
“I made a handwritten list,” said Hughes, now a professor of medicine at Emory University. “And sort of towards the end of the meeting, when I thought we were nearly done, I think I said something to the effect of ‘OK, does anybody have anything else they want to add?’ And I remember C.J. … saying: ‘Well, you know, we probably should add hantaviruses.’”
“And lo and behold, within a week or two he was proven clairvoyant. The hantavirus outbreak investigation would have gone very differently had he and his team not been there.”
The new virus was eventually named Sin Nombre.
Later in his career, Peters led a project that resulted in the development of an experimental vaccine to protect against Rift Valley fever — a virus transmitted by mosquitoes that can cause devastating outbreaks in domesticated animals but also illness, including blindness, in people in sub-Saharan Africa. Though the vaccine looks promising in testing, it hasn’t found a commercial partner willing to push it through licensure, but Peters hasn’t given up hope yet.
These days, though, life is quieter for Peters. A few years back, he developed an autoimmune condition called chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy, which attacks nerves in the lower extremities. He has to be cautious about walking, relying on a cane and on his wife, Susan, a former librarian.
One of his current joys is also a frustration. He loves to watch CNN’s “Parts Unknown,” the travelogue starring celebrity cook turned author cum professional globetrotter Anthony Bourdain. Peters watches for the exotic meals Bourdain consumes — those that remind him of the meals he ate during his own travels.
During his travels, Peters ate pretty much anything that was set before him – iguana, turtle, armadillo, to name but a few. “It’s good. Tastes meaty,” he said of the latter.
Like many other scientists, Peter spent time in Africa trying to determine where the Ebola virus hides away in nature between human outbreaks.
It is a virus that worries him. Although it’s believed Ebola is mainly transmitted through contact with the body fluids of an infected animal or person, Peters thinks it actually spreads by aerosol — viruses floating through the air in tiny droplets — more often than recognized. (He is not alone in that view, but the idea is controversial.)
When Peters thinks about what nature might throw at humankind, this is the kind of threat he fears. It is exceptionally difficult to contain outbreaks of diseases that can be contracted by merely inhaling a breath.
“Time is long and viruses are inventive,’’ he warned. “I’m on the human side, but I’m betting on the virus.”