“Basically,” Dr. Julian Sutr said, “Viruses are zombies. They are neither classifiable as living nor dead. When given the opportunity, they reproduce using a host. Their molecules form complex
structures but they need hosts to reproduce. Nucleic acids, proteins — ”
The Skype connection froze for a moment and then the doctor understood he was being interrupted. “—preciate your summary, doctor.” Two men in uniform and one woman in a suit, each with their own screen, regarded him with impatience.
“The virus has grown more…opportunistic. What fooled us early on was the varied rate of infection and lethality. I suspect individual variance in liver enzymes accounts — ”
The woman cleared her throat and Sutr lost his place in the notes he’d prepared for this meeting. She sighed as he fumbled with his iPad. He had too many notes and not enough time. The woman sighed and tapped a stylus on her desk. “I’m meeting with him soon, doctor. I need the bullet, please. What do I tell him?”
Sutr removed his glasses and closed his eyes. This was too important to stammer and stutter through. Finding the correct words had never mattered more. He took a deep breath but kept his eyes closed and pretended he was speaking intimately with his beloved Manisha. His wife’s name meant “wisdom” and she shared her name with the goddess of the mind. He needed her and her namesake now. “My team and I…” He took another deep breath. “The virus has jumped.”
One of the men in uniform, an admiral in white, spoke, which automatically muted Dr. Sutr’s microphone. “First it was bats, then birds, then migratory birds, then pigs and cows. What animal do we warn the WHO about now? What animal do the Chinese have to slaughter next to keep the cap on this thing? A vaccine won’t help billions of Chinese peasants if they starve to death first.”
“I’m very aware of the stakes, sir, but the virus has jumped to humans. I asked my contact at Google to watch the key words. The epidemiological mapping of the spread is already lighting up in Japan, Malaysia, Chechnya and I already have confirmation it’s in parts of the Middle East, I’m afraid.”
“What’s your next step, doctor?” the woman asked.
Sutr opened his eyes. “I’ve sent my team home. They should be with their families now. As should we all.”
The man in the green uniform, a four-star general, leaned closer to his camera, filling Sutr’s screen. “This is no time to give up the fight, doctor. We’ve got a world to save from your…what did you call it? Zombie virus?”
“Pardon me, general. It was a clumsy metaphor. My point was that viruses are dead and I can’t kill dead things. I’m afraid we lost containment. I suspect we must have lost control sometime in the last two to three weeks. Perhaps less. Maybe more. There are too many variables. This virus is a tricky one. Something new.”
The general paled. “Are you saying this disease was engineered?”
For the first time, Sutr showed irritation toward his inquisitors. “I don’t know! I told you, there are too many variables. The loss of containment could have been sabotage or someone on my team made a mistake. Maybe they were too afraid to admit their mistake. It’s possible I made a mistake and I did not recognize it as such! I’ve identified the virus signature, but the work will have to be taken up by someone else. In my opinion, we need a miracle. As a virologist who has worked with Ebola, my faith in miracles is absent. Nature doesn’t know mercy or luck. That hope was beaten out of me in Africa.”
The admiral cut in. “Look, you’re already headed for the Nobel by identifying the virus. There’s time. We have to hope — ” but the woman in the suit held up a hand and he fell silent.
“We do appreciate the complexity of the challenge before us, Dr. Sutr. That’s why we need you. You’re the best and you’re farther along in the research than any of the other labs.” The woman looked conciliatory now and her voice took on a new, soothing note. “We’re very anxious to have you continue.”
Dr. Sutr stiffened. “I’ve already composed and sent an email for the lab network. You’ll have the entire data dump and I’ve made extra notes so your teams won’t waste time with what hasn’t worked. Dan, at CDC will coordinate my latest data to the other nodes. Good luck with it.”
The woman’s eyes narrowed. “You were vague about the virus gaining traction in ‘parts of the Middle East’. Have you line of sight confirmation, doctor?”
“Yes. I’ve seen the virus’s work in person. Here in Dubai, in my own house. Tarun, my baby boy died last night. My wife, Manisha, followed him to see where he went early this morning.”
“We’re so sorry for your loss, Julian,” the woman said. “Are you infected?”
“I have no doubt I will die.”
“How long have you got, son?” the Admiral said. “You’ve said the infection gradient and lethality is so variable…you could keep working. We could still defeat this thing.”
Julian Sutr’s voice came firm and steady. “General, Admiral…Madam Secretary. It’s entirely possible that I brought it home to them. My wife and child are dead by the virus that bears my name. I should have been an obstetrician like my mother. She brought life into the world…” A tear slipped down the doctor’s cheek. “You people ask me what you should tell him. Go to your briefing. Tell him that, in all likelihood, he is the last President of the United States.”
Dr. Julian Sutr picked up the Sig Sauer P220 from his desk, placed the muzzle under his chin and pulled the trigger.
- The Sutr Virus: What happened? (thisplagueofdays.com)
- NSFW: Quotes from today’s revisions of This Plague of Days (thisplagueofdays.com)
- Writers, Writing and When to Swear (chazzwrites.com)
- China: H7N9 Outbreak to Potentially Become Deadliest in History with Over 20% Mortality Rate (intellihub.com)
- Efficacy of Influenza Vaccination and Tamiflu Treatment – Comparative Studies with Eurasian Swine Influenza Viruses in Pigs (plosone.org)