A fictional short story written by Jing Chen.
CHAPTER 1 | Researchers of Viruses
Twentieth century is the century of physics. Planck, Einstein, Heisenberg, Schrodinger and many other illustrious names dot the history of the last hundred years. It is often said that the twenty first century is the century of biology, a century that finally cracks the secret of life.
The greatest achievement in twentieth century physics is the understanding of the smallest particles of nature: the electrons, protons and atoms. The greatest achievement in twenty first century biology will be the understanding of the smallest members of life — the viruses.
Jenny has lived in New York for over twenty years now, first as a graduate student and now as a senior researcher in the microbiology program. For many years, she has diligently studied viruses. Under microscopes, many viruses look like toys, the kind of toys that can be assembled and disassembled. Many biologists do indeed assemble and disassemble them. But not every kind of assembling is equally prized. The ones that gain in function are hotly pursued. Gain in function means the reassembled viruses actually gain certain functions that earlier viruses don’t have. For example, some viruses originally inhabit bats. Through genetic engineering, the reassembled viruses may gain the function to inhabit mice, monkeys, or even humans, the crown achievement many researchers dream of.
With the advancement of knowledge, creating viruses to inhabit, or infect, humans is no more a dream of the distant future. This concerns many people. Regulations become more and more complex. Applications for funding get tighter and tighter scrutiny. With increasing difficulty in funding, many of Jenny’s colleagues drop this research. Others move to countries where funding is more generous and regulation is less onerous. But Jenny stays. Being one of the best in her field, she continues to receive large grants on gain of function in viruses. She, along with her colleagues, make rapid progress. They demonstrate that certain viruses living on bats, with specific genetic modifications, can easily inhabit human cells.
Some researchers celebrate the achievement. Others, however, are less sanguine about the potential implications. They write letters to journals about the danger of leaking such novel chimeras to the environment. Humans don’t have immunity against these novel viruses. The accidental leaking of such lab made viruses could be disastrous. These letters generate a public outcry. The US federal government abruptly halts all gain of function research, pending further investigations. Suddenly, Jenny’s funding is frozen. She is going to lose her job. She is too old to move on to a new area of research. Other disciplines are facing the increasing regulatory burden, anyway. But she is not old enough to retire. Her only daughter is still in high school. Some of her PhD classmates are working at McDonald’s. She wonders if she will end up in the same place. She is in despair.
One day, she gets an email from an old classmate in China. He offers her a senior position at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The new salary would be much higher than her current salary. The funding will be generous and steady. Even more enticing, he tells Jenny that she will have complete academic freedom on her research. In the states, Jenny has to put up with all the people lecturing her on how to do her science. Seeing no future for her career in the states, Jenny accepts the offer and starts packing for China.
Jenny has lived in New York for a long time. Now she is leaving. She reflects on her life here and remembers James, her microbiology class teacher. James is passionate about viruses. He is the most brilliant teacher she has ever met. For many years, Jenny had wanted to ask James to be her PhD adviser. However, James hasn’t run a lab for awhile and he has no funding. In the end, Jenny chose a more active researcher as her adviser. But Jenny keeps a fond memory of her microbiology teacher. Jenny sends a message to James. She thanks him for his teaching and tells him she is leaving for China. James is very happy to get a message from his former student and invites her to dinner before leaving.
James picks a restaurant downtown. It is Tuesday evening. The restaurant is very quiet, although it is quite full. James has retired from the university for some time. He is glad to have a chance to talk to his former student. After the meal, Jenny asks, “Why did you stopped your active research so early? You are so brilliant… it’s a waste of all your talent.”
James replies: “Well, I was very passionate about research when I was young. I hoped to eradicate all harmful bacteria and viruses. That was the dream of my generation. But the more I studied, the more I realized that most microbes around us are beneficial to us. Bacteria help us to digest. Many viruses eat bacteria, preventing those bacteria from multiplying exponentially inside humans. The most potent antibiotics are produced by fungi. Penicillin, the most widely used antibiotic, is produced by Penicillium, a type of fungi. Yet if antibiotics kill too many bacteria, fungi will overrun human bodies, for harmful fungi are also kept in check by bacteria. Different kinds of microbes, by constraining each other, keep humans healthy most of the time.
“But some bacteria do more harm than good,” says Jenny.
“Yes,” says James. “We try very hard to eliminate those bacteria or suppress their presence. We are more successful in developing vaccines or treatments against DNA based organisms, which are more stable and easier to target. But RNA viruses mutate very fast. It is more elusive to target the ever changing RNA viruses accurately. Many recent epidemics, such as HIV, influenza, and coronaviruses, are caused by RNA viruses.
When we suppress one type of microbe, we celebrate our success. But from the ecological perspective, we merely open a rich ecological niche, human bodies, for new hosts. This is why superbugs flourish in hospitals, where most known microbes are suppressed. When we eliminate one type of bacteria, we make it easier for weaker and less competitive pathogens to invade us. RNA viruses mutate very often. They make so many mistakes. It is very difficult for them to compete with more stable, more powerful DNA organisms. But when humans eliminate DNA organisms, RNA viruses face less competition. It is we ourselves who make RNA viruses such successful invaders.”
Jenny protests, “But overall, the prevalence of infectious diseases is declining over time.”
James says, “This is true. However, our immune systems are evolved to handle an abundance of pathogens. When there are less pathogens around, our immune systems often turn to our own cells. In a clean environment, autoimmune diseases become more common. Fetuses become foreign objects. When pathogens are abundant, immune systems focus on external defences against bacteria and viruses. But when there are few pathogens around, immune systems turn to fetuses. That could be one reason why fertility rates in modern societies are so low. When we sterilize our environment, we sterilize ourselves.”
Jenny questions: “Does that mean that all of our research is useless?”
James: “Like everything else in civilization, our research reduces pains and gives comfort. Our research insulates us from the vicissitudes of nature. Civilization reduces our danger, and reduces our ability to encounter danger. Nature used to be our playground. Our ancestors hunted, fished and collected wild food. We were the natives of the land. Now we are more and more like invading aliens on this land. We protect ourselves with heavier and heavier armor. We view nature with increasing suspicion. We avoid bears, moose, bacteria and viruses, which have been with us for millions of years. We alienate ourselves from the natural world. Our bodies, and thus, our immune systems, are less and less familiar with nature. In societies where research is heavily funded, the population becomes increasingly aging and vulnerable. In societies where research is less funded, the population remains youthful and energetic.”
Jenny defends: “Even if I don’t continue my research, tens and hundreds of people are waiting to take over my role. You quit researching long ago. That doesn’t slow down the pace of research.”
James noticed Jenny was depressed. He changed the topic. “You are returning at an opportune time. US is scaling down its ambition in science. Meanwhile, China is scaling up. You are going to have great opportunities.”
It was very late when they finished dinner. When Jenny drove back home, she was still pondering what James was saying. I am returning to China at an opportune time. I am going to have great opportunities.
CHAPTER 2 | Return to Wuhan
The city of Wuhan is dusty and crowded. Yet once you step into a fancy, newly constructed building, it feels like a different world. Jenny’s office is similar to her office in New York — only larger, sleeker, and much more modern. Her equipment is similar, but pricier, and of higher caliber. Her lab staff are similar, but they work harder. Jenny feels at home.
Jenny grew up in Wuhan. Most of her classmates are still here. Soon after her return, her high school classmates hold a gathering. Jenny finds that most of her old classmates are very relaxed and content. Some have already retired. Jenny feels that she can finally settle down.
After the gathering, Jenny accepts a ride back home with Sam. Jenny remembers Sam as a quiet boy in high school, silent and smart. Now Sam is a math professor at Wuhan University, where Jenny spent her undergraduate years. In the car, Jenny asks Sam why China is developing so fast.
Sam likes to trace problems back to their roots. He says, “Let’s compare the Chinese and English language. In the Chinese language, there is a clear meaning, structure, and order to every character. For example, in Chinese: January is ‘first month’, February is ‘second month’, and so on, to December, which translates as ‘twelfth month’. The word ‘month’ is also the same word as ‘moon’. The language itself embodies the knowledge of our ancestors. In English, the months — January, February, March, to December — are twelve separate words with no clear relations and structures.”
Jenny replies: “But English also contains structures. September, October, November and December have a clear structure.”
Sam continues, “That’s right. But what do those words mean? September is seventh month, October is eight month, November is ninth month, and December is tenth month. In English, they eventually morphed into the ninth to twelfth month. In English, and other alphabetical languages, the meaning of words are quite fluid. Chinese is a logographic language, where each character has a distinct image. In Chinese, the meanings of the words are also highly specific and fixed. When we say seventh month, it can only mean the seventh month. We can’t use the same word to represent the ninth month. When we communicate in Chinese, the meaning of each word is very clear and distinct. This greatly enhances the efficiency of communication. That is an important reason in considering why economic activities are so efficient in China.”
Jenny counters, “If that’s so, then why is China lagging in science and innovation?
Sam replied, “Because logographic words have very distinct meanings, it is often difficult to express new or unknown ideas in Chinese. That is why China is lagging behind in innovation. The Chinese society is also slow to adopt new ideas. But for mature ideas and mature technologies, Chinese language has its advantages. In most mature industries, Chinese manufacturers dominate the global market. In most standard examinations, Chinese students excel in the world.”
“From a historical perspective: for the majority of China’s long and relatively stable periods, the Chinese population was high, and Chinese technology was very advanced. But during the periods of rapid change in the last several hundred years, China was left behind.”
Jenny responds, unconvinced: “Your explanation is too far fetched. Economic activities can’t be related to languages.”
Sam: “Language itself is an economic tool. It aims at transmitting maximal amount of information with the least amount of cost. Costs include fixed cost and variable cost. Logographic languages have high fixed cost and low variable cost. It is very difficult to learn Chinese at the beginning. You have to remember several thousand distinct characters. But once you learn them, reading becomes very easy. Most elementary school students in China can read very easily. Alphabetical languages have low fixed cost and high variable cost. English only has twenty six letters. It is easy to get started. But there are tens of thousands of mostly unrelated words to remember. Many high school graduates in the US can’t read very well.”
“Information processing takes tremendous amounts of our effort. Just think about how much time we spend on reading, talking and writing. All our formative years are spent in schooling. Most of our adult life is spent in communicating. The impact of language is enormous.”
Jenny interrupts, “Let’s stop talking about abstract things. What do you think about the future of China?”
Sam: “If China is content to develop itself naturally, China will do very well over time. However, the Chinese political system, like the Chinese language, is a high fixed cost system. The wealth in China is highly concentrated in the governments, especially the central government. The Chinese government is extremely wealthy and powerful. It can do things that no other governments can imagine. Firstly, the Chinese government enforced the one child policy. This greatly reduced the number of children to take care of and freed up a lot of labor. The increase of labor greatly accelerated the development of the Chinese economy. With newly accumulated wealth, the Chinese government is spending a lot of money on vanity projects, such as science research. The spending increases the prestige of the government and keeps the general populace poor and easy to manage. China started the one child policy in 1980. China’s power will peak around 2020 to 2025. After that, the rapid population aging will exhaust the Chinese economy.”
Jenny disagrees, “Basic science research will generate great economic opportunities in the future.”
Sam: “This is true to an extent. But research itself is costly. Too much of anything is not beneficial. That is why the US and Europe are slashing a lot of their research programs. They can no longer afford such extravagancy.”
Jenny thinks about her struggle for funding in the US and the lavish funding she is getting now. Suddenly she feels very tired. Fortunately, they have arrived at her residence. Jenny says goodbye to Sam and goes up to her apartment.
Jenny is kept very busy with her lab work. She is highly sensitive to the danger of the gain of function projects. She constantly reminds her staff that they should always put safety as their top priority. But in scientific research, priority is always the top priority. You have to be the first to get credit. Concerns for safety is only important as far as it helps advance your career. Jenny is very careful. But she has a large lab staff. Every researcher is under tremendous pressure to get to the results fast.
Jenny’s research is about the interaction between viruses and human beings. In biology and medicine, research related to human beings is held at high prestige. With the US and Europe tightening their regulations on human related research, Jenny’s papers easily gain international prominence. Jenny’s team expands rapidly. Several research labs in Wuhan join her research team. With rapid expansion, Jenny worries about the safety problem occasionally. But other rival research teams are expanding aggressively. If she slows down, she will be taken over by others.
For several years, Jenny is busy and happy. She is showered with larger and larger grants. Regulatory approvals are little more than a formality. These have been her most productive years. She has been invited to give talks at top research institutions and major conferences. She even appears on national TV programs regularly. Only several years ago, she was struggling for tiny amount of funding. Now she has become a celebrity. By all means, she is at the pinnacle of her life.
Recently, she receives messages about the circulation of a SARS like pneumonia in various Wuhan hospitals. Because Wuhan is the center of virus research in China, the coincidence between the virus research and the virus infection is occasionally mentioned. Could her lab, or another lab, have accidentally leaked the viruses?
CHAPTER 3 | Big Data
Guildford is the director of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in Beijing. Under his watch, the CDC has expanded its big data program extensively. A widespread reporting network is established across the whole country. Any outbreak of infectious disease anywhere in China will be reported within six hours. In a conference talk, Guildford announces confidently, “A SARS like epidemic will be a thing of the past in China. The CDC is sleepless so the public can sleep tight at night.”
After the talk, it is discussion time. Sam is a participant of the conference. He questions: “You mentioned that an outbreak of an infectious disease will be reported to the CDC in six hours. But will the public be alerted about the outbreak?”
Guildford says, “The public will be informed soon after CDC is alerted.”
Sam responds: “In most big data collections, the public is not informed of the results. Companies often use big data to target consumers more effectively. More consumers get into debt because of the more efficient advertising generated by big data. Big data benefits the collectors. It doesn’t necessarily benefit the public.”
“In general, big data greatly enhances the information gathering ability and control for headquarters. As a result, decision power further consolidates to the headquarters. Local branches have neither authority nor incentive to respond actively to emergent situations. Any initiation from local branches are viewed with suspicion from the headquarters. Indeed, local branches are more eager to display loyalty and obedience instead of competence. Any independent information source will be viewed as a challenge or rival to central authority. As a result, big data further monopolizes information gathering and releasing to headquarters. It reduces the number of channels of information transmission. This could be disastrous in a critical moment.”
Guildford responds, “We are not a commercial operation. We are a government agency. We are here to protect people.”
Sam says, “In the Soviet era, spores of anthrax were accidentally released to the public. Many people died from that. But the accident was covered up for a long time.”
Guildford: “That was the Soviet era. That was a long time ago. Today is a different era.”
Sam: “Today, big data systems are more powerful than ever. The central government has a tighter grip on the local governments than in the Soviet era. The government monitors people’s behavior more intensively than during the Soviet era.
Guildford says, “This is off topic. We at the CDC are concerned about disease control.”
Sam says, “I am from Wuhan, a city of more than ten million people. It is China’s research center on viruses. If viruses leak from a lab in Wuhan, will the CDC inform the public within six hours? Does the CDC have the authority to inform the public directly? Will people, under big data surveillance, be deterred from reporting infectious diseases?”
That topic was beyond the control of Guildford. “Thank you,’ he says. “Others may have more questions.”
Soon after the first few SARS like cases appeared in Wuhan, the CDC was alerted. It reports the cases to the crown. It quickly mobilizes its staff. As soon as the crown make the authorization, the CDC will unleash its formidable power to quarantine the public and eliminate the disease. But the expected response from the crown did not arrive.
Several days later, China Crown Television (CCTV) broadcasts the confessions of several Wuhan doctors for spreading false rumors about an unknown infectious disease. The big data systems track down those doctors easily. Guildford is puzzled. The crown is very aware of the seriousness of the disease. Military institutions start to refuse entry of any outside visitors to avoid infections. The Institute of Virology starts to search for vaccines in a frenzy. Guildford can only speculate about why the crown is suppressing the information about the disease to the public. He cannot make an announcement to the public about the impending epidemic. But he has to do something — anything to protect himself from future blames of inaction. He organizes a group of well known experts for a high profile trip to Wuhan to “gather information”.
Wuhan officials receive these innocent looking experts from Beijing. The crown, through the broadcasting of CCTV, has forbidden the spread of rumors about the infectious disease. Why these have these idiot experts still come to Wuhan to “gather information”? It is merely their bad luck that Wuhan is the center of research on viruses. The Wuhan officials have to out innocent those innocent looking experts. They have heard none of the rumors about the infectious diseases. The Wuhan government distributes free tickets so people can have a great time in the parks. They organize a large community gathering so people can mingle together freely. Wuhan is a completely normal city.
CHAPTER 4 | Medical Systems
The big data system successfully suppresses the spread of the rumors about the infectious disease. However, it is less successful in suppressing the infectious disease itself.
The disease spreads rapidly in Wuhan. The epidemic is going to explode. Finally, an official acknowledgement comes from the government. Then the city of Wuhan and the whole province of Hubei are immediately locked down.
The lockdown is an enclosure of an exploding place. The whole city of Wuhan is in a complete panic. People rush to the hospital to have themselves checked and treated. The hospitals are overwhelmed. Many medical workers do not have personal protection equipment. Many become infected and sick. Some die. For many sick people, it becomes impossible to see a doctor.
Sam, his wife and his son get a high fever. Sam can’t get hold of a doctor. He hears good words about a certain Dr. Li, who operates a private clinic. In China, most respected doctors work for large hospitals. Sam, a university professor, would not usually choose to go to a private clinic. But this time, he has no choice.
He arrives at the small clinic. It is located on a remote and run down street. Apparently, this Dr. Li rents the cheapest place in the city. This doesn’t give Sam much confidence.
There is no receptionist in the clinic. Dr. Li greets every patient himself. He is a man in his fifties. Unlike other doctors and nurses, he doesn’t wear a face mask. Sam is rather skeptical. But he doesn’t have any alternative. Dr. Li briefly asks Sam about his symptoms. Then he injects a small dose of diluted phenol on four meridian points around Sam’s neck. Sam is totally unconvinced. He asks Dr. Li, “Why are you injecting phenol?”
Dr. Li said, “Do you know much about the immune system?”
Sam replies, “A little bit.”
Dr. Li says: “Our immune system includes innate systems and adaptive systems. When we encounter new pathogens, our immune system doesn’t have a targeted method against them. Our body will enlist the broad spectrum innate immune system to fight off the unfamiliar invaders. The heavy bombardments can be brutal, often causing damage to our own cells and tissues as well. But they are the best available weapons.
At the same time, our immune system will study the new pathogens, with the hope to develop specific antibodies in the future. These antibodies will target those specific pathogens if they invade us again. This method will target and destroy invaders precisely. It will cause little collateral damage to ourselves. This is part of our adaptive immune system.
In summary, our immune systems consists of two major parts: broad spectrum innate systems and targeted adaptive systems. When we encounter new pathogens, our primitive and broad spectrum innate immune systems will defend ourselves against unfamiliar intruders. We can adopt the same strategy in protecting ourselves from unfamiliar new diseases. We can use primitive and broad spectrum medicine to defend ourselves against new diseases, until and only if more specialized medicine becomes available.”
Sam asks, “What are the broad spectrum medicines that we have?”
Dr. Li says, “Antiseptics kill most germs. They are the true broad spectrum medicine. Among antiseptics, alcohol is the most commonly used. Since ancient times, alcohol based drinks have been used as sterilized drinks and as medicine. A routine rinse of the mouth with hard liquor, such as whisky, probably provides good protection against many new and old pathogens.
Other than alcohol (ethanol), phenol has been used as an antiseptic for more than a hundred years. Phenol based throat spray, such as Chloraseptic, is available without prescription. It is cheap and convenient, easy to buy over the counter. In recent years, I have been using phenol as a broad spectrum medicine for many kinds of illness, including the current novel coronavirus disease.”
Sam asks, “How effective is phenol on this new disease?”
Dr. Li said, “Most patients recover after injections.”
Sam then wonders, “Why don’t you wear a face mask? All other physicians wear masks.”
Dr. Li says, “I have injected phenol on myself. I am well protected.”
Sam asks, “How did you choose those meridian points for injection?”
Dr. Li says, “I experimented. Those meridian points seem to work well.”
Sam asks, “How do you explain meridian points? Do you have a theory?”
Dr. Li says, “There is a systematic theory in Chinese medicine. But I don’t follow the theory that much. In medicine, many good treatments don’t have a good theory. It is still largely an experimental field. That is why drug testing is such a long process.”
Sam then asks, “If phenol is as good as you claim, then why don’t pharmaceutical companies use it as a medicine for many diseases?”
Dr. Li says, “I can only guess. Phenol has been used as an antiseptic for a long time. It is very cheap. If phenol is widely adopted as a broad spectrum medicine, it could be very damaging to the bottom line of the drug industry and many hospitals. Furthermore, in the new applications, phenol is delivered similar to Chinese medicine. Standard medicine won’t accept it. Yet phenol is not a traditional Chinese medicine. So Chinese medicine won’t accept it, either.”
Several days later, Sam and his family completely recovered. He wasn’t sure if it was due to Dr. Li’s treatment or their own immune systems. Nevertheless, he started to refer Dr. Li to friends desperately seeking medical treatment. Gradually, Dr. Li’s name was mentioned more and more on social media.
One day, he read that Dr. Li was investigated by the government. It was found that Dr. Li was practicing medicine without a proper licence. Dr. Li’s clinic was shut down.
Then Sam learned more about Dr. Li from social media. He did graduate from a medical school and practice medicine in a regular military hospital. But he exposed his boss for embezzlement. For this, he was discharged from the military and lost his doctor’s license. He never got his license back. To make a living, he set up a small clinic in a low profile remote street. Most of his patients are poor people who could not afford medical service otherwise. He was not a competitor to big hospitals and was left alone. But during the epidemic, many people began to seek his help and recover from the illness. As his reputation grows, he becomes a threat to the formal medical system.
There is an uproar on the internet over the closure of Dr. Li’s clinic. The people in Wuhan are already extremely angry over the lock down of their city. Now the government shuts down a popular clinic when many can’t access any other medical help. The government doesn’t want to further offend the public at this moment. Dr. Li’s clinic is reopened, for now.
CHAPTER 5 | New York City
James follows the news of the coronavirus outbreak. He notices that the name of Jenny, his former student, displays prominently on the topic of the origin of this outbreak. He watches as the epicenter of the epidemic shifts from Wuhan, to Europe, then to New York, with vengeance.
New York is a city with grand buildings, grand universities, grand money and grand pride. Yet the tiny viruses sweep through New York just like any other place. Indeed, the viruses hit New York much harder than the other cities. The viruses pay little attention to all the impressive looking scientists, all the impressive looking bankers and all the impressive looking artists. These coronaviruses are tiny, much tinier than the tiniest bacteria. But they charge courageously against the most revered and the most feared personalities. They pay no respect to the self important modern and post modern institutions.
On an early April morning, James ventures down the street of his apartment. He looks up the street, and down the street. Everything is eerily quiet. Then he looks up into the sky. It is a fortress of tall buildings. James is ambivalent about his feeling towards those skyscrapers. They are supposed to be impressive. And James was duly impressed. But James also feels oppressed by the tall and weighty buildings. He feels squeezed by the narrow openings between the gigantic skyscrapers. Everything impressive is at the same time oppressive.
James looks at the gigantic, rigidly built up skyscrapers. Then he thinks about the farm houses his father built. They were less impressive. But his father designed them himself and built them himself, according to his own imagination.
Science research is the same, he reckons. The early science research, the kind of research conducted by Copernicus, Kepler and Mendel, may not look very impressive. But they were the imagination of the individuals. They were a labor of love. The newest research, built upon a skyscraper of established research, with a long and respectable list of references, look impressive. But they were created in the oppressive and rigid environments of vast amounts of established results. You are supposed to improve the results of more senior members of the research community, but you are not to negate the whole foundation of the research community. You improve your reputation by improving the reputation of your peers. If your work destroys the reputation of the whole community, you destroy your own reputation and your career.
It is in this rigidly built up city, where the grandest of science clashes with the meek and nimble virus. Viruses are versatile, economical, and most of all, fecund. They are ancient. And they are forever young. They are the most prolific and successful life on earth. Yet many scientists don’t even call viruses life. They simply define life in a way to exclude viruses. How arrogant and self centered some people are! Viruses are our stern masters. They guide us, discipline us and prune us in more ways than we can imagine.
James is lost in thought. He walks slowly and aimlessly along the street. At the corner of his street, several children run in his direction, chasing each other on the street. They seem totally ignorant of social distancing. Or they are simply ignoring it. Maybe the children know something about the viruses that he doesn’t, James considers. Maybe we need more june juveniles than august authorities. After all, juveniles rejuvenate our life. August authorities don’t, no matter how impressive they look, how wealthy they are, or how much pain they can inflict upon others.