Kaalkut. Chapter 18

17 November 2019 
Wuhan Virology Research Institute, China

Rui Guan, one of the Senior Virologists in  Wuhan Virology Research Institute (WVRI) was could barely keep his eyes open. He had spent the last three days in the lab working with only a few hours of sleep and countless cups of coffee and ramen. He took yet another sample collected from the District Hospital and put it the dish for analysis. He had to wait for 3 hours while the sample was analysed and the DNA signatures of yet another sample analysed by the advanced custom built analyser powered by a powerful supercomputer.

Yang Bo, his immediate junior, walked into the lab carrying another collection of samples and started putting them in the vials for analysis. Guan looked at him with a questioning glance, “If you want this crap analysed too, do it yourself. I am going home after the current batch is finished.”

Bo sighed and nodded; he was in the same boat as Guan, “I want the same thing as you, but this comes directly on Director’s orders from Xiagon. Seems like they’ve found the same problem as Xianning and Qichun.”

Guan groaned, “He’ll send samples after samples but not allow us to involve other people in the lab for any assistance. What exactly is going on in his brain?”

Bo just shrugged and started arranging vials for analysis.

WVRI was one of the premier institutes in not just China but the entire world for virology. It was built over 90 acres of land with numerous sections specialising in their own line of work. Chinese government had spared no expense and hired leading experts from all over the world to make the facility as advanced as possible. The institute financed research in many universities and associated labs and attracted the top talent from all over the country. Chinese government directly controlled and financed all the activities in the institute under supervision of a PLA Political Commissar holding rank of a Major General.

During late November, some hospitals in the nearby region had reported increased cases of patients being admitted with flu like symptoms and many more in out patient departments. At first, it was diagonsed as influenza in 2-3 hospitals but it didn’t respond to most traditional treatments. Then a local doctor had shared his experience of seeing the increasing number of such cases on Weibo, the Chinese social media platform. Following his post, a number of doctors and health professionals had posted about similar experiences. When the number of fatalities started to increase, more and more doctors from the province started to share reports of similar cases in their hospitals and clinics. At first, they considered it a seasonal flu, but then a doctor who had a previous history of heart disease died while suffering from similar symptoms. It caused increased activity not just on social media but newspapers too.

Chinese local authorities took notice and the censors deleted such posts after issuing doctors warning against creating unnecessary panic. The information about the possibly new infection was passed on to WVRI few days back which had sent it’s sample collection teams to some of the hospitals which had reported such patients. The collection team had reported up to 30% mortality rates in admitted patients which caused researchers of the institute to take notice. 

After reading initial reports, director of WVRI Major General Wuxi Zhang, ordered a communications lock down between the different wings of the institute and took charge of the whole operation. A small team of scientists involved in research related to infectious disease was given special charge of  analysis of the new samples as they arrived. Their preliminary analysis indicated the presence of a certain type of virus in most of the samples. As soon as they had isolated the suspected virus, they were taken off the case and research about the virus was handed over to the team of Rui Guan and Yang Bo who were tasked with mapping the genome of the suspected new virus.

After this, their access to most of the database of the institute was completely cut off. They could only map the genome of virus, but had no way of comparing it to the existing database of viruses they had catalogued.  After yet another sleepless night, the small team of scientists had managed to map the genome of new virus and had confirmed that all except a handful of the samples had contained the same virus. After this, Zhang had gotten all samples removed from the lab by a PLA team and asked the scientists to delete all data they had collected about the virus. A team of technicians was sent to ensure that every trace of the research was wiped out from the institute and couldn’t be recovered. 

A lot of people in the loop were quite concerned about the actions of General, but kept quiet.  

Few Days Later, Beijing

The small meeting room in PLA headquarters had three people wearing PLA uniforms and one in civilian clothes. He was talking animatedly while gesturing to the large projector screen displaying magnified visuals of biological samples.

Lieutenant General  Chen Youxia walked in to the meeting room leading to everyone standing up and greeting him deferentially. As one of the senior ranked Political Commissars in China, Youxia had been recently promoted in to Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee and outranked everyone in the room.  He acknowledged the congratulatory address to him politely and asked the meeting to start. 

The man near the screen, Doctor Zhao Leji was the deputy director of WVRI. He bowed nervously and started, “Thank you for giving me this chance. I’ll start with the basic work behind this issue and then move on to current events. This whole topic is quite expansive, so I’ll keep my focus only on the relevant issues. If you have any questions, you can ask them anytime.”

He hurriedly cleaned his throat and continued, ”In September last year WVRI was tasked with cataloguing certain categories of viruses present in local wildlife of China and a few neighbouring countries. Our teams of researchers which included students from four central universities, their professors and some scientists from our institute spent months in collecting wildlife samples and extracting virus and bacteria samples from them. Actually the process is still not over as it’s a huge task and will take atleast 3-4 months more.

The animal samples were processed in various local laboratories to isolate the microscopic organisms infesting them and then sent to WVRI for DNA analysis and cataloguing. I want to stress that every living being has countless number and varieties of bacteria, viruses and other organisms like mites in and on its body, even humans. Not every such micro-organism is harmful or even a parasite. Any animal or insect may be a host of a number of such viruses or bacteria which will be completely harmless to it but lethal to a different specie. 

Our task was to identify as many such previously unknown organisms as possible with special focus on viruses. We wanted to collect data related to possible transmission vectors, infection rates and their effects of human and animal physiology. “

One uniformed general spoke, “Is this research relevant for biological warfare?”

Dr Leji blinked rapidly as if he didn’t understand the question and furtively stole a glance at  Major General Wuxi Zhang and replied in a hesitating tone, “Yes, it is possible to use this research to create biological weapons.”

Xi asked another question, “Was it your primary motive?”

Zhang rubbed his neck nervously, “ Our motive was and still is to ensure the safety and prosperity of China. Nothing more, nothing less.”

Another person in the room asked, “What experiments were done with the viruses collected from the wild animals?”

Youxia turned his neck to give that PLA general a look which caused him to stop asking further questions. Dr Leji looked around in confusion for a while then started again, “Well yes, so as I was saying, one division collected and collated data related to virus genome. Another division in WVRI was tasked with studying the effects of viruses on other possible hosts.” He paused with a nervous look on his face and changed the slide to show a list. “This slide on screen lists the hosts which were used to test the effects and infectiousness of some of the microbes.”

Everyone in the room read the slide and exchanged glances, Leji began again, “As you can see, humans were involved in most of the tests. But there is one thing that you must know. The genome of CX virus which is causing this outbreak is only 99.3% same as that of the virus that was used in the human tests.

Additionally, all the tests were done in world class laboratory standards with highest possible safety protocols. It’s highly unlikely that some person or any animal used in the trials could have gone on to spread the virus outside. All the animals were destroyed after testing and humans were kept in full isolation and tested multiple times before being released. We made sure that the human test subjects were carrying no microbes from our tests before their release. ”

“What is the probability that the CX virus mutated during your human or animal trials? Just 0.7% deviation is not that big of a number. ” a voice in room asked. 

Dr Leji was not enjoying the meeting at all. His body language and unsteady voice made it clear to everyone in the room, “In our line of work, a 0.7% deviation is a huge deal, it doesn’t happen very often naturally.”

“But it can happen, can’t it?”

Dr Leji cleared his throat and looked once at Zhang, “It can happen, but chances are extremely rare. And considering that safety protocols that WVRI follows, chances of a harmless virus jumping from humans to another one and causing a pandemic is next to impossible.

The original virus that we tested in the laboratory is related to a family of viruses which can cause influenza like symptoms. But that virus itself can’t cause any such symptoms by itself. It can’t be transmitted from one human to another. For all we know it could have originated in a farm or some meat market which sells wild animal meat and spread from there.”

Another Major General asked, “II also have one question, “What was the primary military purpose of human and animal testing?

“This was part of a military study meant to collect data for  war planning and simulation. We wanted to see if it was possible for our population and livestock could get infected if an enemy nation bombed or disturbed any wildlife habitat causing the animals to enter cities and villages.” Zhang answered a question for the first time.

Youxia seemed lost in deep thought, “So it’s either a bio-weapons research gone wrong or a disease from unregulated meat market.”

 Zhang allowed himself an imperceptible sigh of relief, “As Dr Leji explained Comrade Lt General, chances of former are almost negligible compared to the latter. After going through thousands of pages of data, all the scientists of WVRI are quite sure that the CX virus originated in some natural source or was brought in to China by a foreign entity..”

Youxia scoffed, “Ofcourse they are sure and frankly at this time I don’t care. This disease has the potential to turn in to a worldwide pandemic. I want everyone present in this room to start making preparations to control it’s spread before it becomes a major headache. Major General Lee, I want your Ministry of Health to start taking steps to implement quarantine measures and work with WVRI to develop a cure as soon as possible. Work with our people at WHO to make sure that the news of this virus doesn’t get too much attention and China is not blamed in anyway in case it spreads outside.

Comrade Zhang, I’ll need a detailed report about your research project along with all the data your lab collected on my desk by tomorrow afternoon. You’ll also cooperate with local hospitals to make sure that there is no panic among general public and health professionals. Anyone who goes against this directive needs to be disciplined.”

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