October Short Story Competition: Pandemic

Science News: Pandemic, exclusive interview.

Unlike the 2009/2010 ‘Swine Flu’ epidemic which was long predicted, over-hyped and claimed many months of media attention, the virus that mutated abruptly into a potential worldwide killer in December 2010 was almost completely unpredicted and until now not reported. Experts we consulted with these newly disclosed facts about the ‘Measles Mutation’ estimate that this virus had the potential to wipe out 75 -80% of the population worldwide.

Here Dr Erica Nicholson tells her story for the first time, illustrating how the mundane can so quickly turn into horror.

On 17th December 2010 I was the last person in the laboratory.

I had stayed back as I was behind in the analysis of my results in my lab work notebook. I always kept meticulous hand written notes and almost obsessively checked my figures on daily basis before entering them onto the spreadsheet. And as I wrote in the third column, I noticed an unexpected trend in the figures. It was late, I was tired and feeling off-colour – plus it was a Friday night and the computer was already closing down. Breaking my own rules I decided that whatever the anomaly was, it would have to wait until Monday. This is something I will always regret.

The computer finally finished shutting down and I switched off the screen, put the note-book in the drawer and checked the thermostat before glancing around the room. In general everything looked in order, though Sean’s work area was, as usual, not tidy. He’d left papers on his bench and a lamp switched on. I can remember thinking, when will he learn?

I went over and snapped off the light, then almost immediately clicked it back on again. A headline on the document on the table top asked the question, “Viral Mutations: real or imagined risk?”  A quick glance revealed it was a report of a series of studies in Germany where routine viral testing had given unexpected results. Sean had written in red ink at the top of the first page,

“? measles mutation??” As I flicked through the article I could see the imprint of the hand scrawled note on each page. I picked up the article and stuffed it into the rucksack, knowing I ought to read it. Sean had an instinct for these things. I went to the door, re-set the alarm and locked the door.

I remember I arrived home drenched to the skin. I dumped the bike in the garage and opened the front door to the flat. Shivering, I stripped off in the dark hallway, leaving my clothes in a heap and went straight to the bathroom, to take a long hot shower.  Afterwards, in dressing gown and slippers, I went into the kitchen and straight to the fridge, reaching for the chilled bottle of Chardonnay. I opened the bottle and poured a generous glassful before sitting down at the kitchen table. David, my long-term partner, had broken the news only the previous Sunday, that he wanted a break and I was still in that phase of knowing the facts on an intellectual level, but my emotions had not yet caught up. I remember thinking What now? What the hell do I do now?

It was about 7:30pm. I switched on the radio and half listening to Mark Lawson on ‘Front Row’ I opened the freezer. I pushed the contents around for a while knowing I should eat. Lunch had been a coffee and a Mars Bar. In the end I pulled out a frozen semi-baked baguette and turned on the oven, set the timer and poured another glass of wine. Eleven minutes later as the timer went off for the bread I had nearly finished the glass and realised I had to get a grip.

I scrambled some eggs to have with the baguette. But I couldn’t face much of it. I added a restrained splash of wine to my glass and picked up an apple from the fruit bowl and went into the hallway where I had dumped the rucksack. I picked it up and went into the sitting room. The Sunday papers were still spread out in front of the fire-place. The ashes from the log fire had settled into grey dust.

I tipped out the rucksack’s contents onto the floor. The article I’d found on Sean’s workbench fluttered out. I slumped onto the sofa and smoothed the paper then started to read. I felt shivery. I pulled a throw off the sofa back and wrapped myself in it.

I was woken by my mobile phone. I felt awful – hot, sweaty and dizzy – and I reached the phone just to late. I checked the details. Call from an unknown number. I sat on my heels in the middle of the muddle and started to tidy up. Then the phone gave a beep to indicate an answer machine message. I dialled 121. It was Sean’s voice.

“Erica, I have to talk to you. It’s urgent. Ring me back. A.S.A.P.”

I checked the time. 2:40 am. I stood up and went to the kitchen to fill the kettle. I went to the bathroom, took two paracetamol and washed my face before pulling on some clean clothes. Back in the kitchen I dialled Sean’s number as I waited for the kettle to boil. I felt shivery again.

“I’m in the lab,” Sean said. “Have you read the article? I think I’m onto something. Need you to be in on it. May take all weekend.” He was buzzing. He hardly let me get a word in edgeways. I didn’t have a chance to tell him I had fallen asleep over the article. But he sounded really anxious and in less than 5 minutes l was stuffing a sleeping bag into a big rucksack, along with a few clothes and a sponge bag with a few basic items. I debated my relative state of inebriation and decided I’d be better off on the push bike, rather than the car. I checked my lights and with the rucksack threatening to overbalance me I rode off back up the hill to the hospital. The temperature had dropped and the road sparkled with frost.

Carl nodded at me from the porters’ desk as I came in. He was used to the research fellows coming and going at strange times to check on their various experiments. I took the lift up to level eight research labs. As I pushed open the doors I could see Sean intently examining a slide under the electron microscope.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Thank heavens you came,” he said. “Big trouble. The measles virus experiment has gone haywire and I have a feeling this specimen shows a mutation.”

He stood back for me to have a look through the microscope. The virus was unrecognisable.

Sean told me he had followed up on the article and discovered that several teams had problems since the new Australian virus culture medium came on the market. It seemed to be encouraging new viral mutations – and no one seemed to know why or how. He suspected that there was a contaminate in the virus culture.

I told him I had some unexpected results but that I hadn’t yet entered them on the data base.  Sean said had already had a look in my notebook, and told me that what he had seen had clinched it for him.

“We have no idea of knowing how virulent this is,” he said, “but my hunch is that we are dealing with a very dangerous virus and we need to take urgent action.”

I agreed. But who would take notice of two young doctors without any proof?

Here Dr Sean Anderson takes up the story.

Erica didn’t look well.

“Are you running a temperature?” I asked, though it was obvious really,

“I think so. I put it down to emotional exhaustion, but I’ve been feeling off-colour since lunch-time.”

I asked her if there was any chance of contamination with the experimental virus, and she told me she had found a broken test tube on the floor on the Thursday, but despite taking the usual precautions, there was always a risk with spillages. Immediately I became suspicious that she had contracted an infection from the mutated virus and that we would have no idea how she would react.

We called the Department of Health emergency line in the early hours Saturday 18th December with a summary of the problem and a suggested plan of action. The hospital was isolated. All UK users of the culture medium were traced and alerted. By the evening Erica was acutely ill, being nursed in an ITU isolation bay with sophisticated barrier nursing and a small team of doctors and nurses all taking high dose anti-virals. Luckily the hospital had a good supply and I too took anti-virals as a precaution. Her infection was eventually identified as a mutation of the measles virus which had grown in the suspect virus culture, but at that stage we were working purely on conjecture. I carefully gowned up, methodically dissembled the current experiments and destroyed each test tube in the industrial microwave. A message went out to all the laboratories worldwide which may be involved in viral cultures, using the suspect culture medium and all followed suit. It was decided that there should be no risks taken and no mutated viral material should be left, not even for research purposes. It was all completely destroyed.

I was so worried about Erica, I can’t tell you.

It was incredible that at the time the full story did not hit the public domain, in any way. The hype of Christmas and the struggling sales figures dominated the news and the risks and threats of the mutant virus were squashed by the politicians. A report about suspect laboratory supplies was allowed, but it did not go into details. We were debriefed by the Chief Medical officer. This whole story was hushed up. The doctors and nurses who cared for Erica were told only what was absolutely necessary, but they were sworn to secrecy anyway, bound by the Hippocratic Oath and patient confidentiality. After a few days Erica started to make a recovery, but it is almost certain that she would have died without ITU care.

So now, in December 2020, following the complete dissolution of the National Health Service (replaced by the truly market driven medical system, ‘Health for You’) these doctors have decided to speak out. It is only now that we can admire their dedication : they risked their own lives in protecting the planet from a virulent epidemic of unprecedented proportions. And how were they able to do this? In part it was because of the NHS systems which were in place at the time. An effective system of research not driven by finance existed then, plus a joined up Public Health Unit which operated country wide and was respected worldwide. Evidence based medicine was the norm in 2010.

Dr Erica Nicholson and her now husband Dr Sean Anderson have decided to tell their story, not for personal benefit, but to expose the hypocrisy of today’s government which, having dismantled the NHS in a fanfare of excitement, with a cry of ‘O, Brave New World,’ have brought in their new service without sufficient forethought, and are now struggling with the facts as they stand.

The new decentralised health system does not have a clearly defined communication system: it is completely disjointed. No one has given consideration to how this new disjointed system will be able to give a coordinated response to the challenges that the newly identified ‘Feline Flu’ mutation will bring. And no-one seems to have a grip on this. No new vaccines are available, no one has any research findings on the strains which have mutated and everyone is at a loss.

How many will die as a result of this?

Author: Sarah

No time to lose. No, time to lose. Make time to stand and stare.... Did you see that?

12 thoughts on “October Short Story Competition: Pandemic”

  1. I don’t know anything more than Joe Public, but I do worry the NHS will collapse and when it does little babies may be thrown out with the bathwater.

  2. Glad you made it, Nym.

    Gripping, absorbing, very good indeed.

    I think I’ve just coughed up a furball. Help! 🙂

  3. Loved this Pseu. Just as well it’s fiction or I’d have been out on the street with my “save the NHS” placard. 🙂

    Quick someone, jab Bilbs!

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