When Angela thinks about viruses, which is every day now, she sees herself at Costco, pushing a shopping cart. They could have swarmed from the handlebar to her fingers as she walked past the cornflakes.
Or maybe they were floating through the ductwork at her office, and when she opened her mouth to yawn—
Or did it happen at the gym, as she furiously pumped the elliptical machine and wiped the sweat from her cheek—
Photo by Kendrick Brinson
Influenza is a careless invader, with spikes on its shell like a medieval mace. It hijacks your cells for reproduction and copies itself with blinding speed. The copies are unpredictable. Sometimes they don’t work. But sometimes they work even better than they should. Influenza has a rare talent for profiting from its own production errors.
Maybe your body was immune to the old influenza. It knew what to expect. Its defenses were in place. But one production error can change everything. The body’s defenders are caught by surprise. The battle becomes a massacre.
Ninety-two years ago, at the height of World War I, this exact thing happened. A new kind of flu virus emerged, and humans had no natural defense. It was one of the two deadliest pandemics of all time, with numbers comparable to the Black Death. The average flu strain kills one of every 1,000 people it infects. The Great Influenza of 1918 killed one in forty.
The H5N1 avian flu kills one out of two. You may have heard of it. It was all over the news from 2005 to 2008. It didn’t kill many humans, because it had trouble spreading from one person to the next, but scientists were afraid it might learn how any day. In fact, they’re still worried. No one knows when this virus will stumble upon the solution.
Now for the good news. We are not helpless. In the seventy years since we spied our first virus through an electron microscope, we have dramatically improved our defenses. Smallpox once scarred and blinded untold millions; by 1980 it had been wiped off the face of the earth. Polio used to cripple children all over the world and leave them gasping for breath inside massive iron lungs; today it circulates widely in just seven countries. Seventy years ago malaria left a trail of fever and death across the Southeast. Atlanta was the heart of malaria country, which is why the federal government set up a base here for the disease’s eradication. Workers coated almost 5 million houses with a pesticide called DDT, killing the mosquitoes that spread the parasite. By 1949 malaria was nearly vanquished in the United States, but the agency charged with its removal stayed in Atlanta and took up the fight against other diseases. Today that agency is called the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and it is the nationwide headquarters in our war with influenza. Somewhere on its campus off Clifton Road, six miles northeast of Downtown, in a locked freezer guarded with a retinal scanner, there is a resurrected copy of the Great Influenza virus that killed as many as 100 million people. Scientists are studying it for clues to the next pandemic.
Everyone thought the next pandemic would come from Asia, in the form of the H5N1 avian flu. The CDC even held war games under a fictional scenario in which a college student caught the virus in Indonesia and shared it with his swim team at Georgetown University. Almost 800 people took part in the practice runs, trying to simulate how the government would respond to this viral invasion. It was probably useful from an administrative standpoint. But here’s the problem: The 280 workers of the Influenza Division have an impossible mandate. They are told to predict the next move of a virus that makes its living by defying predictions. And so it was both stunning and unsurprising when the next pandemic turned out to be not bird flu from Asia but swine flu from Mexico.
It was April 2009, and the objectives in the Influenza Division were clear. Capture and interrogate the invaders. Break their code. Equip other laboratories around the world to do the same. Hurry. If a new virus was in production, the blueprints could be stolen. The defenders could be prepared for the invasion’s next wave.
Thousands of lives could be saved.