There’s a moment in the history of medicine that’s so cinematic it’s a wonder no one has put it in a Hollywood film. The scene is a London laboratory. The year is 1928. Alexander Fleming, a Scottish microbiologist, is back from a vacation and is cleaning up his work space. He notices that a speck of mold has invaded one of his cultures of Staphylococcus bacteria. It isn’t just spreading through the culture, though. It’s killing the bacteria surrounding it.
Fleming rescued the culture and carefully isolated the mold. He ran a series of experiments confirming that it was producing a Staphylococcus-killing molecule. And Fleming then discovered that the mold could kill many other species of infectious bacteria as well. “I had a clue that here was something good, but I could not possibly know how good it was,” he later said.
We do currently have “antiviral” drugs, but they’re a pale shadow of their bacteria-fighting counterparts. People infected with HIV, for example, can avoid developing AIDS by taking a cocktail of antiviral drugs. But if they stop taking them, the virus will rebound to its former level in a matter of weeks. Patients have to keep taking the drugs for the rest of their lives to prevent the virus from wiping out their immune system.