Valley Of Shadows – Snippet 07

“Thanks,” Tom said without inflection. “Let’s keep that to ourselves for the time being. I need him hungry just now. Speaking of which, what new info–if any–have you heard on the lashup?”

Smith referred to the continuous global conference call that had grown out of an international circle of Curry’s peers. It hadn’t been cheap, exactly, to buy a way into the conference, but information on the disease was literally priceless at this point. Results would justify the expenditure of hard cash that was beginning to add up, even by bank standards.

The scientists had been on the phone since the crisis was recognized, alternating between being glued to the emerging analysis and the resulting reports on one hand and mercilessly whipping their research and lab teams to greater efforts on the other. Late on Friday night, or maybe it was Saturday morning, someone had a rush of blood to the head and suggested that they securely combine all of the similar calls then underway between big pharma companies, within the European version of the CDC and most especially across the universities in Asia and the Pacific. Members of the intelligence community also sat in, albeit very discreetly.

That’s when Bank of the Americas bought in, courtesy of a heads up from a niche biotech in which they had a controlling interest. Once the disparate teams started talking to each other in a structured way, the spread of the infection had become apparent.

The virus was pretty much everywhere. Including on the Internet, which was just starting to go nuts, mostly over handheld shaky phonecam video of crazy, naked bloody people fighting, biting and being restrained.

Practically effervescent, the virologist was happily submerged in his element.

“Well, we have a name–for now,” Curry said, burbling contentedly. “We’re calling it the Pacific flu. CDC and USAMRIID isolated it first, but their work has already been duplicated. Looks like a variation on the influenza type A virus subtype. Think of the H in avian influenza, thus H5N1. Confirmed to be highly pathogenic, which we already strongly suspected. Affects multiple organs in the body. So far symptoms only manifest in people, but we are still checking if animals, birds in particular, can be carriers.”

“Christ,” Smith said staring balefully into his mug. “That is all we need–birds carrying this around even faster.”

“Any additional carriers would actually be redundant, at this point,” Curry replied. “The disease is actually quite elegant.”

Smith’s eyes snapped back.

“Elegant how, exactly?”

“Well, a few places are still sequencing the complete genome and we’ll have that data shortly,” Curry explained patiently. “But it’s apparent that this H7 variant is engineered. Ah’ll start with the flu piece. It’s pretty straightforward and very aggressive. Carriers are infectious at least four days prior to developing stage one symptoms, might be as much as a week.”

He glanced around and sobered, noting that several members of Smith’s team had drifted into range.

“Do y’all want to go to that fancy room of yours?”

“Horse, barn door,” Smith said with a shake of his head. “If the information that you have is already out to the participants of your call, there isn’t a point in compartmentalizing. We’ll confine use of the deal rooms to our internal preparations. Please continue.”

“Well, like I said, up to a week-long window of communicability before you know that you are sick.” Curry took a bite of coffeecake and washed it down with coffee. “And this thing is transmissible as hell. Air borne, droplet borne and blood borne. Trying to narrow down if it can be transmitted purely by sexual contact, but that is harder to prove, since any, uh, romantic contact usually includes the exchange of, uh, more than…”

Curry looked helplessly around at the growing crowd, including many women, that now entirely surrounded their table.

“We get it, Doc,” Smith was in no mood to spare Curry’s southern sensibilities now. “People kiss when they root. Keep it moving.”

“Root?” Curry asked, confused.

“Australian for ‘have intimate relations,'” Rune offered helpfully as Smith slightly narrowed his eyes.

“Right,” the virologist said nervously. “Well, then there are up to three days of misery as the flu tears you up–worse than the seasonal, but not nearly as hard hitting as SARS. The prompt mortality rate from the flu symptoms is at least five percent–might go as high as ten. We are still firming that up.”

Someone in the ad hoc audience exhaled audibly.

Rune was listening in.

“How about the Tamiflu?”

“This critter laughs at every antiviral we have tried so far,” Curry said dismissing the query. “Tamiflu doesn’t really ‘kill’ viruses, you understand. It binds to the neuraminidase receptors that virii use to dissolve the coatings on uninfected cells. No neuraminidase, no way to infiltrate a healthy cell and hijack its genetic machinery. We still don’t know which protein the new virus is using, so no antiviral remedy is even on the radar. But if I may…” Curry said, vaguely waving at the intel leader.

Smith looked over at Rune.

“Let him get to the end, then we’ll get a proper brief upstairs ASAP. Cut to the last bit, Doctor. Tell me about zombie part.”

“Ah yes, well that is one of the elegant bits, really, if it is intentional,” Curry smiled again, back in his element. “I rather think it is.”

“Intentional. You mean that you have confirmation that someone made this…virus?”

“It’s definitely a virus and I don’t have any doubt that it’s a synthetic pathogen. The virus is behaving strangely, for a virus that is. Let me stress that this is a very preliminary opinion, and not everyone agrees, but its behavior, the actual virus’s behavior is atypical. Somehow, it’s creating dual symptoms, and further, symptoms are varying by transmission method. This is a first, in my experience.”

Smith stared at him for a moment, and then made little “go on” hand motions.

“Recall that the reports states that most afflicted patients often strip off their clothes?” Curry continued. “Well, a few days after the flu symptoms wear off, the virus starts Act Two. Patients remain infectious as hell, by the way, but the virus generates neurological symptoms, starting with parasthesia…”

Smith’s eyes narrowed.

The academic went on hurriedly. “…which is to say, the feeling of itching or tingling, like there are ants under your clothes, you understand? It’s perfectly hideous, actually. One of the big problem with the zombie plague myth is that a mindless human predator wouldn’t bother with the social niceties of removing and replacing clothing to eliminate waste. Shortly, they would suffer from impaction, infection and death. In my opinion, this is a little bit of deliberate forethought which sidesteps that issue. The infected persons react to the itching by stripping off their garments. Problem solved.”

Curry beamed at his attentive, if horrified, audience.

“There is more, too. The initial presentation of neurological symptoms also features palsy, confusion, dizziness, reduced vision and, as I said, that itchy feeling of bugs under your clothes, formication. Speech centers and behavioral regulation are profoundly affected. As these symptoms intensify, the patients become wildly aggressive. If they survive the onset of the second symptom set, and now we’re finding that most don’t, they’ll attack anyone and anything on sight–including each other.”

Smith rapped out, “Mortality rate on the second stage?”

“Well, we have lots of reports of infected patients now, but none that document the progression of the disease while under constant surveillance from start to finish. Say, of the twenty-plus confirmed cases in Asia Pacific so far, maybe sixty percent went to stage two. Of those, perhaps another fifteen percent died intra-stage. That is a very rough estimate. Law of small statistical populations, you know. However, we are getting more data all the time.”

Tom stood.

“Doctor, I expect that we’ll be extending your retainer indefinitely.” He glanced around the table.

“Everyone upstairs,” Tom gestured sharply to his team. “Paul, set up an updated brief for thirty minutes from now. Doctor, you are going to brief the CEO, personally. We might have time for Zeus, after all. I am going to try to squeeze a couple calls in first.”