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Fred LaSor: Virus and the Heart of Darkness

Fred LaSor

For a little over four years in the 1980s I was assigned to the American Embassy in Bangui, capital of a former French colony now known as the Central African Republic.

Bangui is situated on a set of rapids on the Ubangui River, as far upriver as riverboats can navigate from Leopoldville in the Congo. Readers of Joseph Conrad will remember that river and the dark images Conrad painted of this land straddling the equator: Africa’s Heart of Darkness.

One feature of the Central African Republic at that time was a pestilence that flourished there: Human Immunodifficiency Virus, or HIV. That virus was rampant in CAR, often leading to AIDS — acquired immunodeficiency syndrome — a killer that spares few in Africa and elsewhere.

Alain G. was director of the Pasteur Institute when I was there, a good friend with whom I passed many an afternoon discussing our work and reflecting frequently on HIV and its toll on the afflicted, occasionally including French légionnaires who were stationed there.

Alain wanted the world to understand things he was learning from his work and research into HIV and AIDS, so he regularly wrote articles for scholarly medical journals that he would ask me to proofread as English was not his first language and he didn’t want his articles to be misunderstood.

Alain introduced me to Dr. Anthony Fauci, then a leading researcher on HIV and AIDS in the United States.

Fauci now directs the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases and works on the White House Task Force on Coronavirus, in which role he frequently appears on TV discussing the Coronavirus pandemic.

Although we never met personally, I felt like I knew Fauci very well as I forwarded Alain’s articles for inclusion in medical journals where they added to the world’s understanding of HIV. I came away from working with Alain with high regard for all the infectious disease researchers – they were trying to understand and find a way to prevent and cure a virus that was devastating people in the CAR and elsewhere.

As a side note, Alain hired our daughter Rebecca as a lab technician doing blood tests on French légionnaires before they flew home to Europe. The idea was to try to prevent HIV from being carried back to France, and Rebecca came home more than once devastated over having identified a 20-year-old French trooper who was diagnosed with what was then a death sentence.

All this history came back to me in the past week as I heard Fauci criticized for his role on the White House Task Force on Coronavirus, an assignment that is becoming more political than scientific.

If you’re going to hate President Trump, and there are plenty of people who do, then you’re probably going to hate Fauci and everyone else who appears during the White House press briefings. A number of left-wing commentators are even demanding the end of daily press briefings because they raise the president’s profile. They hate him if he talks to the press; they hate him if he doesn’t talk to the press. Bottom line: they hate him.

Memories of those virus researchers came back recently, scientists working to understand the scope and significance of a virus in an African country of little importance other than as a disease reservoir and an intellectual challenge, researchers now vilified for standing beside Trump. This unreasoning hatred is our own heart of darkness.

On a separate note, welcome home to Steve and Zita Waclo, Carson City residents who flew home two weeks ago from the Grand Princess cruise ship, where Coronavirus had sequestered them far longer than they planned.

Fred LaSor and his family lived in the Central African Republic from 1984 to 1988. They now live in Minden.