“I’m afraid I’ve forgotten much of my university biology, Dr. Warren. Perhaps you could fill me in. What are we dealing with?” Martin said as the two waited for the biohazard team to arrive. He was a soldier, really, not a research scientist.
Dr. Warren walked around the room again, peering closely at the equipment. He noticed earlier that she gestured and fidgeted as she talked.
“I suspect . . . detective . . . “ she said haltingly as she looked carefully at the home-made scientific equipment, “their goal was to tweak a virus into a superbug.”
She turned and looked at him, clutching her hands together. Martin thought she looked a bit frightened. “It’s long been a goal for some very bad actors in the international community to create an outbreak, perhaps even a pandemic.”
Martin was getting a little impatient with her. “Yes, I’m aware of this. Ecoterrorists want to kill off 'excess' human population, political terrorists want to punish their opposition, religious terrorists want to bring glory to their god. But did they succeed?”
He paused, and then after a few seconds said “Are we exposed to something? In here? Now?”
Dr. Warren sighed rather dramatically. “I can’t say with any certainty. We have equipment and samples from which we might be able to test and tell us what they did or wanted to do. This is all, quite honestly, just speculation on my part. But I think it stands to reason we could be standing, essentially unprotected, in ground zero. And if so, you and I will be among the first.”
Martin resisted the urge to bolt out of the apartment door in a panic. He was something of a germaphobe, he had to admit. He liked to be clean and tidy, something is aunt – who’d raised him after his mother had passed away – had insisted upon. He was health conscience, fit, and kept scrupulously clean at all times. The thought of contracting an unknown disease in a putrefying apartment was almost intolerable.
He realized, suddenly that she was talking again.
“Of course, a virus is really just a bit of genetic information wrapped in proteins, fat, or sugars. It cannot live long by itself, and so must quickly get into a plant or animal cell to survive. Once there, the virus uses the cell to replicate. It tricks the cell into making a copy of its genetic code. Sometimes during this copying process natural mutations occur. If the mutation results in a change which enables the virus to better survive, to more quickly infect or better replicate it, then that virus will become more infectious – more deadly, more destructive.”
Martin grunted disapprovingly, and Warren spun around defensively. “The virus doesn’t think – it just replicates. It’s not malicious. It just,” she shrugged, “it wants to make more of itself. And it needs living things to do that.”
She leaned back against the wall and gestured. “That’s the beauty of the evolutionary process, really. The best – well, viruses in this case – survive to have more progeny. It just happens to be that a real killer virus, a retrovirus, alters the genetic code of the host. Often this is quite catastrophic, you see. Victims of Ebola Zaire, for instance, suffer a 90% mortality rate.”
“I thought Ebola was blood borne. Not a pandemic threat.” Martin interjected. He was recalling some of the bioterror training he’d had, and wished he could recall more of it.
“That’s just it. These people were manipulating something. Maybe it was smallpox, or whooping cough, or a strain of flu. If one could tweak something like Ebola, ostensibly you would modify it so that it changes its vector – the method in which it is most likely to be delivered. Alter it, say, so that its protein envelop was tougher than normal, which would allow it to survive longer in the air without drying out. Fairly simple, really, at least in theory; just cross it with some other genetic code, like the common flu. We do the same thing in producing antivirals, we simply reverse the code and try to convince the body to knock it out quicker. Marshal all the body’s forces, you might say. Of course that takes a long time because you can’t test it on humans until you’re convinced it will work.”
“So, these devils were able to do all that here, in this moldering mess?” Martin asked, gesturing at the fetid flat.
“Well . . . yes. The technology, as I said earlier, has been greatly democratized, if you will. Now anyone with a little cash and some effort can do this sort of kitchen sink lab work. You just need a few basic tools and some rather sophisticated knowledge, but it’s certainly more than possible. They’d need something to test the resulting virus on – but other than that they probably could have started with a number of feedstocks in various university or research labs because --”
“What did you say?” Martin asked.
“What, the feedstocks?”
“No, the testing. What would they test this on?”
Warren looked at Martin. “Well . . . people, naturally.”
“I think we need to look back there,” He said, motioning to the hall.
“Because someone could be alive back there.”
Go on to part seven.
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