Robert Shope, 74, Virus Expert Who Warned of Epidemics, Dies

January 23, 2004

Dr. Robert E. Shope, an expert on viruses who was the principal author of a highly publicized 1992 report by the National Academy of Sciences warning of the possible emergence of new and unsettling infectious illnesses, died on Monday in Galveston, Tex. He was 74.

The cause was complications of a lung transplant he received in December, said his daughter Deborah Shope of Galveston. Dr. Shope had pulmonary fibrosis, a disease of unknown origin that scars the lungs.

A professor of epidemiology at Yale for 30 years, Dr. Shope contended that the growth of world population, rapid international travel and the development of drug-resistant microbes and pesticide-resistant insects made worldwide epidemics more likely.

In his report, he also said health officials in the United States had grown complacent, believing that antibiotics and vaccines had conquered infectious diseases.

"We're vulnerable to something along the line of the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic that killed 20 million people worldwide," Dr. Shope said at a news conference announcing the report. "It's happened once; it can happen again."

The report recommended the development of a worldwide surveillance system to detect new diseases and prevent them from developing into epidemics. Had such a system been in place in the 1980's, Dr. Shope said, the spread of AIDS might have been limited.

The report's findings were also published as a book, "Emerging Infections: Microbial Threats to Health in the United States" (1992). Edited by Dr. Shope, Dr. Joshua S. Lederberg, a Nobel laureate, and Dr. Stanley C. Oaks Jr., it has become a standard reference on the topic.

The report also helped bring about a stronger network of disease detection laboratories in the United States, some authorities said. But, despite the World Health Organization's containment of SARS last winter, the worldwide system envisioned in the report, with laboratories conducting research in areas that have historically produced new viruses, has not been put into place, said Dr. Robert Tesh, a longtime colleague of Dr. Shope.

Dr. Shope, who received his undergraduate and medical degrees from Cornell, developed an expertise in viruses transmitted to people and domestic animals by rodents, mosquitoes and other biting, stinging insects. He helped discover hundreds of viruses, conducting investigations in Malaysia as an Army medical officer and in Brazil for the Rockefeller Foundation. At Yale, he led or participated in investigations of Rift Valley fever, Lassa fever, Venezuelan hemorrhagic fever and other diseases.

Working with Dr. Tesh, Dr. Shope also built the World Reference Center for Emerging Viruses and Arboviruses, a collection of some 5,000 samples.

Dr. Shope and Dr. Tesh joined the faculty of the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston in 1995, bringing the collection of viruses with them.

In 1997, Dr. Shope was invited to the White House with six other scientists to brief President Bill Clinton on global warming, which Dr. Shope said could accelerate the spread of infectious diseases because more germ-carrying mosquitoes would thrive in the warmer climate.

In the last two years, Dr. Shope worked on a Defense Department project to develop antidotes to viral agents that terrorists might use.

Robert Ellis Shope was born in Princeton, N.J., and grew up as a neighbor of Albert Einstein.

In addition to his daughter Deborah, Dr. Shope is survived by his wife, Virginia Shope, of Branford, Conn.; another daughter, Bonnie Rice of Belmont, Mass.; two sons, Peter and Steve, both of Newfields, N.H.; two brothers, Tom, of Ann Arbor, Mich., and Richard, of Hudson, Wis.; a sister, Nancy FitzGerrell of Boulder, Colo.; and six grandchildren.

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