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  • Writer's pictureAllan Dyen-Shapiro

The next big viral epidemic--science and science fiction

It was the beginning of the new millennium, and an expatriate Russian passionately expounded on the tragedy his new company was set up to head off. 1/3 of all Egyptians will die of hepatitis C, he told me. Why, I asked? The 1970s anti-Schistosomiasis campaign, he answered.

Now, I'd heard of Schistosomes only because my roommate in graduate school had worked as a technician in the only lab in the US with a grant to study them. The disease they cause horribly disfigures its victims. So an anti-Schistosome vaccine probably sounded like a very good thing to the Egyptians in the 1970s.

But health officials stood on street corners in Cairo and jabbed up to a few hundred people with the same needles, infecting 1/3 of the population of a rather large country with the then-unknown virus, now called hepatitis C.

It sounded horrific to me. And this guy's solution--an edible vaccine, grown in a plant transgenically expressing viral products--seemed promising. Indeed, early trials had shown curative properties. None of the vaccines under trial at the time would also cure an infected patient; his did.

So, he had big federal grants, right? Actually, no. When I met him down the hall from me in the new biotech incubator back in my Delaware days (mixed space with academics and small companies), his company was being funded by the Egyptian government. Think about that: the Egyptian government was funding a Russian expatriate to run a company in Delaware because nobody else was willing to fund such research.

As I don't see any mention of their company on the Internet today, it apparently failed. But the big story is the US government just didn't care. Today, the news broke that they will finally start to care about another group of hepatitis C sufferers: Vietnam War era veterans.

Yeah, it's been known for a while that the rates of hepatitis C in vets in general was much higher than that of the broader public (10% in a study of 26,000 vets and 1.6% in the general population) and was still ten-fold higher among Vietnam War era vets. But the government line was that those folks were depraved iv drug users--scum of the earth.

Turns out most didn't contract hepatitis C from drug use. Or sex. It was from vaccinations.

During that era (ending completely only in 1997), active duty soldiers received a mixed cocktail of vaccinations using an "air-gun." Very high pressure air shot the virus under the skin of a soldier's arm. Way more practical than needles--it was quick. But it often broke the skin, and the soldiers' blood contaminated the gun. So just like in Egypt, we contaminated our soldiers with hepatitis C.

So why are we only hearing about this now? Hepatitis C has a long latency period; it often takes 30 years for an infected individual to show symptoms.

But, we've learned our lesson. Infected medical equipment used in mass campaigns without sterilization is, in my opinion, not likely to be the way the next big plague spreads twenty to fifty years from now, the time frame I usually address in my science fiction writing.

Zika, on the other hand, may be the virus archetype for the future. Mosquitos can transmit it; so can sex. And it's arrived in the US. Global climate change, global trade and immigration bring diseases across borders. Methinks there are lots of viruses harbored relatively benignly in animal populations in remote areas that the non-remote areas of the world will soon see.

What about like the movie Twelve Monkeys, where the psychopath scientist brings it on a plane and releases it around the world? Well, that was what the camera showed; bringing his infected self around the world was likely more effective. The movie didn't deny this. If we now have suicide bombers, what about suicide patients with latent infections? Even better, infect with a conditional virus that goes fully virulent when a patient eats something (or doesn't), experiences a certain climate, etc. Designing the ideal virus would take some expertise, but propagating it could probably happen in a run down shack in the world's least technologically advanced countries.

An airborne virus bomb? Tough. First, the virus would need to infect from the air. Sure, flu does it. But I'll bet a cough is a far better way of spreading flu than any bomb you can design. Rather drop packages that get opened by the unsuspecting. Get the virus all over their hands, infect them, and just let them move.

Movement is key to the virus that will end civilization as we know it (at least science fictional civilization). If you plot the first cases of AIDS in Africa on a map, you draw the highways built in the 1960s by Cubans using Haitian labor. So AIDS went from Africa to Haiti. And at the time, Haiti was a prime tourist destination for the American gay community. So from Haiti to the US. Without those highways, AIDS would have remained a localized virus.

No doctor learns about the virus that kills two people in the world. A virus has to kill a lot of people in the same way before it is studied. The number of uncharacterized viruses that have sickened one or two in the world--uncountably high.

The wall around Israel in World War Z didn't keep the zombies out. Trump's wall won't keep the immigrants out. No wall will keep a virus out.

If you want a cure, infect powerful, rich guys. As proven with the Vietnam vets and the Egyptians, and also in the early days of AIDS when the Reagan administration considered it a "gay disease," if a virus infects anyone the powers that be don't care about, it will be an epidemic before the forces of capital and the governments they own lift a finger.

And that's the dimension I haven't seen in science fiction. Lots and lots of stories focus on viruses. Few incorporate class conflict.

I can't be the only one thinking about these things. I hope I'm not.

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