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He was relieved that it was his friend and colleague Alistair Flemming, a senior microbiologist with the Department of the Navy, who had handed him the devastating news. He was going to need all the help he could get to make sure those in authority here at the Pentagon clearly understood what it was that they had to deal with.
Exhaling very slowly, John sank to his chair and handed the note back to Alistair.
"So we were right. At least we are in the right place at the right time. Here in Washington we are in the best position to raise the alert. This is your ball park, Alistair. You open the discussion then hand over to me whenever you need to." Alistair nodded to the chairman who had just halted the regular meeting of defence force scientists and forces personnel to update the work of microbiologists working to control the threat that biological and chemical agents in the hands of terrorists – or unstable governments – present to the USA.
"Well, Alistair have you something you need to share with us?" asked the chairman, General Gene Tolhurst.
Alistair stood, paused for a moment and then said: "Sir, I wish I could have given you a personal briefing. However time is so vital that I seek leave to address the whole committee right now. I realize this is highly irregular but when you hear what we, that is Dr. Goode and myself, have to say you will fully understand the urgency."
"Very well, let the minutes show that this meeting is suspended until we have heard and considered what you have to say."
"Thank you. To begin with, I'll ask Dr. Goode to recount events that occurred and were discussed at a President's Scientific Advisory Committee meeting five years ago. John, if you would."
John remained seated as he described what had occurred at a meeting of the advisory body headed by Dr Vernon Hemmington, a specialist in biology, whose team comprised experts in most disciplines of medical science and related fields. As he spoke he recalled that meeting five years ago and the animosity Hemmington had shown towards him, no doubt caused by John's awareness of the man's shortcomings in microbiology which he had demonstrated on more than one occasion. But he also knew that what he had to say was far more important than the attitude of a colleague for whom he had long ago lost any vestige of respect.
"Five years ago, after a number of routine reports, Dr Gorge Vaslow, a virologist on detachment from the US navy, reported a virulent chicken-pox epidemic which was sweeping the sixth fleet, then stationed in the northern Indian Ocean. I asked for more details of this outbreak and was stunned to learn that the ship concerned had not visited any ports in the three months it had been at sea.
"Puzzled that officers and crew of a ship that had been isolated for such a long period would suddenly report an outbreak of a serious infectious disease, I wanted to know if a likely source had been identified. I was told that supplies from Singapore hadbeenflowntothefleetinthefortnightpriortothefirstsymptomsbeingreported. It was assumed that the virus was one that was endemic in that country at that time. "I was horrified to learn that the Department of Defence was not overly concerned about the outbreak and had, in fact, directed the ship and its infected crew members to return to Pearl Harbor within the week. Highlighting the exceptionally short incubation period at that time, I suggested that the ship not be allowed to berth without further urgent investigation.
"I based my concerns on the hypothesis published some 20 years ago by Professor Macquarrie, an eminent teaching professor who suspected that incubation periods in many infectious diseases were showing signs of becoming much shorter. He believed the reason for this was a mutation of a virus to a more aggressive strain. This mutation typically would occur when a second – unrelated – virus invaded the same host cell as the first virus and assimilated the properties that it desired from both the cell and the original virus, making a third virus which would be super-virile. If the second virus, in its original form, invaded a person already infected with the mutant strain, it would change and absorb the mutant, inheriting its hitherto masked virility but magnified to a frightening degree. At this stage it may still remain dormant, awaiting a trigger to fire it off. He thought of it this way: if you were swimming in a pool with one baby piranha fish it would not bite you unless it smelled blood, in which case it could inflict some injury, but it would be easily overcome and killed. Now, place another 500 full size fish in the pool and you have some idea of what challenge we would have to meet."
John Goode went on to emphasise that he had not been scaremongering, only trying to prevent a catastrophe which had never happened, indeed may never happen, but had to be prevented at all costs.
Alistair Flemming rose and asked the assembled scientists – with one notable exception, there was concern on all their faces – not to ask questions until he had finished what he had to say.
"John Goode and I have both been advised this morning that there has been a new outbreak of an infectious disease, believed to be yellow fever, in the southern part of Venezuela, at a place called Moroa. The US navy had a detachment of marines and senior sailors from active ships undergoing camouflage training in jungle terrain. They returned to their units and/or went on leave less than a week ago. This morning we received a report of an alarming outbreak of an extremely virulent nature which has affected personnel on 11 ships at sea and five land bases. John Goode has, this morning, advised me that around one year ago the State Department asked for information on all known diseases endemic in a 100-mile-square area of Venezuala and sought advice on inoculations likely to be required for troops training there for up to two weeks. The recommendations were sent but we are not sure to whom.
"John suggested earlier today that we should not put any procedures in place until we had confirmed cases of this outbreak among marines who were also stricken with the chicken-pox-type virus in the incidents which raised my concerns regarding the sixth fleet five years ago. Just a few minutes ago we got confirmation that at least four cases were among victims of the virus which affected crews five years ago. Ladies and gentlemen, I regret to say that I fear the day we have been dreading has arrived."
General Tolhurst rose and turned to where Alistair had returned to his seat. "If I understand it, your main concern is not proving this 'super-virus' theory, it is convincing those in authority that there is a very high probability that the professor's theory is correct in this instance and that they had better start doing something about it immediately. To this end, you wish us to endorse this as a potential catastrophic outbreak which needs urgent attention from those in authority?"
"Exactly" John and Alistair answered together.
"Okay. Questions: what do you assess the incubation period to be?"
"John?" Alistair turned to his colleague.
"Based on the troops' departure from Venezuela and arrival back at their postings before the first cases were reported, one – maybe two – days. The problem is, we don't know their schedules after they arrived back in the US. We can be sure of one thing, they would have been exposed to it and by now I suspect it is spreading like wildfire. Some of them would have taken commercial flights back to their bases, so imagine the multiplier effect of this. I would bet that cases are already beginning show up all over this country and possibly others." "I understand that," the General nodded. "However, at this time we don't know the seriousness of the infection. It could be no worse than chicken-pox or flu." "I take your point, General, but I seriously doubt it. However, I understand the position you are in and suggest that we recommend the mobilisation of all agencies trained for such an eventuality. If we are wrong, at least we reacted and it would be good training for them anyway."
Dr. David Hoskins, a virologist, raised his hand. "If the incubation period is correct, this is too frightening not to take action. From what I've heard this must be a very virulent virus and, given that it may at best be only a flu-type illness, it could still debilitate half the country's population or more. Considering what that alone would do to our nation's infrastructure, I recommend we endorse the call for action and hope that it is only a flu virus, although I suspect Alistair and John are closer to the mark."
"John, before we go on," said General Tolhurst, "Can you explain how and by what the original Singapore chicken-pox strain was invaded five years ago."
"No, I cannot, other than to tell you that the incubation period on board the ships was a good four days quicker than in Singapore. It is my opinion that this was because another virus was carried through Singapore to the fleet. The carrier may not have had it when he left his home and, given that Singapore is one of the crossroads of the world, the infection could have occurred there." "No, wait a minute,". interjected another member. "I understood that the Singapore strain had mutated, now you're saying it didn't".
"No", replied John, "what I'm saying is that the strain hadn't mutated in Singapore during the epidemic but did when it reached the fleet or – more correctly – further mutated when it reached the fleet."
"What do you mean?"
Several committee members were getting restless.
"Okay," John said quietly. "Professor Macquarrie's theory was based on the premise that the shorter the incubation period the more virulent the infection. At the time, we assumed that this would be the result of one mutation. However, suppose that this was not entirely accurate, and that two mutations had occurred. "When we first looked at this, we considered the information supplied by Singapore would agree with the fleet's findings. Subsequent inquiries by Dr. Gorge Vaslow, after the fleet returned home, proved this incorrect. There was a difference of four days, as I mentioned earlier. What Gorge also found was that the incubation period during the epidemic in Singapore was much quicker than any previously recorded, eight days. We all know the normal incubation period is 12 to 14 days for chicken-pox. Whilst we have no proof of this – and no research has been carried out – the information we have dovetails neatly into the theory, or even extends it."
Raising his hand for recognition from the chair, Alistair addressed the group. "We are all considered to be experts in this field. What John just told us was new to me but only confirms my own beliefs. What I would earnestly like to happen right now, is for one of you to explain to me why this scenario is not possible and I pray to god that one of you can."
Deep silence gripped the committee until finally Dr Hoskins summed up what everyone thought. "You know it would be virtually impossible to find the original cause, I only hope we can discover a cure."
General Tolhurst rose from his chair. "It would seem that we all agree that urgent action is needed, so what do you want me to do now. More importantly, who can I talk to who will understand the seriousness of the scenario we are facing and be able to act with authority?"
"May I make a suggestion?" Alistair had also risen.
"You are on first name terms with the Chief of Staff at the White House ; ask him to set up a meeting ASAP and take this whole committee with you as backup. Ask him to include Vernon Hemmington and some of his committee and, of course, your boss will have to be involved. I would also ask that the president and all the defence chiefs be available. I am sure none of us will be going home. The point I am trying to make is that we cannot afford to be bogged down with meetings before you get to the president. You know how the system works; if you went through normal channels it could take days." "You're asking me to stick my neck out, but you're right; we have to act fast." So saying, the General picked up the phone and asked for William Webber, the White House Chief of Staff.
"Hello Gene, they said it was important and to quote you, drop everything and come to the phone."
"Well Bill, you know me well enough to know that I don't scare easily but right now I'm terrified," the general replied.
"It would seem that we have an unknown viral epidemic on our hands, or at least there is a better than 50 per cent chance that we have." "What sort of epidemic? I mean how serious is it, Gene?"
The general knew he had the chief's attention.
"Can't tell yet, but even in a mild form it could lay low half of the population." He paused briefly. "What I need is an urgent meeting with you and whoever you believe necessary so that we can brief you enough to convince the president. I will be bringing my entire committee with me, it's that important, Bill."
"Okay, Gene, if you say it is imperative that we meet you had better come straight over and I will round up whoever I can, say one hour's time?"
"Thank you Bill, I pray to god we are wrong."
Hanging up the phone, General Tolhurst turned to the waiting group. "Our first battle begins at the White House in one hour. I believe you should all clear your desks with your bosses. I will leave it to you how much to tell them but they must wait for a directive from us before taking any action. I will arrange for helicopter transport to leave in 15 minutes."
* * *
Bill Webber sat for a moment to consider what General Tolhurst had just told him. He wondered just how serious this alert was, but knew that Gene would not have broken all protocols and rung the direct line if he had not considered it urgent.
He hurriedly left his office to brief the president and get Vernon Hemmington to round up a couple of his committee; best get other scientists' views on this looming tragedy.
* * *
The huge helicopter created quite a whirlwind as it touched down on the White House grounds and they were all ushered into the building through a side door and upstairs to a large room.
They had barely taken their seats when Bill Webber arrived in company with two other men. John recognized one of them from the president's scientific advisory group. Bill Webber greeted General Tolhurst and the rest of the group then introduced the other two, both biologists.
"Before you start, Gene, can we hold for a few minutes, several others are going to join us."
John nudged Alistair: "If Vernon Hemmington is coming; he will be negative so we'll have to convince him."
Alistair pointed towards the door as the president of the United States of America strode into the room and immediately addressed the meeting.
"Good afternoon gentlemen. I am told you have a matter of importance to discuss. Time is of the essence so we will dispense with formalities and get straight down to it. What is it you have to tell me?"
"Vernon is not here yet," the Chief of Staff whispered to the president.
"Some of his people are; they are qualified and can brief him on what we don't understand. I can only give you five minutes."
"Thank you gentlemen, can we now proceed?"
The Chief of Staff glanced across the table to the General. "Gene, you called for this; over to you."
"Thank you Bill. I'm going to hand over to Alistair Flemming and John Goode but before I do I wish to make it abundantly clear that the members of this committee, which is responsible for developing the nation's defences against bacteriological and chemical warfare, are in total agreement with our assessment of the situation. Alistair, if you would."
"Mr. President and gentlemen. This morning we received advice of an outbreak of a viral-type illness in five bases stretching from Hawaii to the East Coast and in 11 different ships currently patrolling the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian ocean regions. These outbreaks occurred simultaneously or near enough to have alerted a pathologist in the navy, Commander Gorge Vaslow, who is a colleague of mine. I was very concerned at the time, but I will not go into why just yet.
"Last week we had 120 naval and marine personnel on training exercises in Venezuela and last night I was informed that there was an outbreak of yellow fever there. This outbreak, reported within a day or so of them leaving Venezuela, obviously occurred whilst they were there. I was aware that the CDC was giving assistance, so we compared notes this morning and, after further investigations, it would appear that these 120 men have been infected with a mutant virus that possibly follows the course of yellow fever or worse. John Goode, a member of our committee, is also with the Centre for Disease Control. He will give you the background on how this could occur and the probable effects."
Excerpted from A Clarion Call by William L. Oliver Copyright © 2012 by William Oliver. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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