CoVid: a novel of surgical suspense–Preview Page

 

 

 

 

About the Story

CoVid19 was not an accident. Its successor, the highly lethal and contagious CoVid23, is not a mutation of CoVid19. China would like us to believe the passage of 19 from animal to human was random and 23 is a natural mutation of 19. The United States wants us to believe both 19 and 23 are weaponized strains of a harmless coronavirus released during a botched Chinese bioweapons experiment. It will be up to Dr. David Aaronson, the new surgeon in the desert town of Fallon, Nevada—home to ranchers and farmers, cowboys and Indians, casinos and legalized brothels, and the US Navy’s TOPGUN training program—to tell the world what really happened. Revealing the truth will pit David against the commander of a US Army bioweapons laboratory, a narcissistic president obsessed with nationalism, and a supervirus poised to decimate the world.

 

 

The Inspiration

For the past eighteen months I’ve been working on The Organ Killers, the final book of the McBride trilogy. It’s a story about a deadly influenza virus that ravages a village in the mountains of Iran–which happens to reside near a BSL 4 laboratory–then spreads to Tehran and other Iranian cities, ultimately decimating the country. From there the viral plague spreads throughout the Middle East, China, Russia, and so on until all of America’s enemies are vanquished. The United States blames Iran for a bioweapons experiment gone bad. Iran denies it. The hero of the story learns the truth and has to battle opposing forces to reveal that truth. 

 

Two months ago I completed the manuscript and passed it on to my first readers. One month ago the first US coronavirus patient was diagnosed here in Seattle, and days after that the Life Care Center nursing home in Kirkland, Washington–about two miles from my house–was decimated by CoVid19. As the epidemic quickly turned into a global pandemic, it didn’t take long for the conspiracy theorists to blame China for a botched bioweapons experiment. And while the pandemic unfolded and the conspiracy theories spread, I was struck by the similarities between my novel and the real-life events happening in the world.

 

Then it occurred to me, when this book is released in the next several months, it’s going to be odd to have a story out there about a viral pandemic originating in Iran and spreading around the globe when there is a real viral pandemic that originated in China. So I decided to revise the manuscript, swapping out Iran for China. The result is CoVid: a novel of surgical suspense.

 

CoVid remains the third book in the McBride trilogy, and David McBride continues as the protagonist, although he is now known as Dr. David Aaronson (if you read The Organ Growers you will understand why). But, and this is a huge but, this book can be read as a stand-alone novel. There are references to David’s backstory that will intrigue the uninitiated readers and, hopefully, encourage those readers to pick up the first two books, but I firmly believe you can read CoVid first–a flash forward, if you will–and still go back and enjoy the first two books of the McBride trilogy. Or you can can simply read CoVid and come away satisfied.   

 

 

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Chapter 1

 

An isolated airstrip in an unnamed desert
Fifty miles from the Kazakhstan/China border
0200 hrs
The inaugural mission of the Night Fury

 

Beyond the halo of multiple floodlights, nothing but black ink darkness. Within the halo of the floodlights, a single UAV, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, commonly referred to as a drone. But this was not a run of the mill surveillance or armed tactical drone. This was the most advanced UAV yet to be conceived: the HoQA50 Night Fury.

Like its namesake from the kid’s movie, the Night Fury was all about stealth. Its outer skin was coated with carbon black—a material that readily absorbs radar waves. Its shape and profile were that of a manta ray with a thirty-foot wingspan. The fuselage was no more than a slight convexity in the middle of the aircraft, housing a liquid hydrogen-fueled jet propulsion system that allowed it to stay aloft for two weeks and fly at altitudes higher than 65,000 feet.

The Night Fury’s inaugural mission would barely test its full capabilities. Its target was 3000 kilometers away, had a population of 11 million, and covered an area of nine thousand square kilometers, or three thousand square miles. With a top speed of 220 kilometers per hour, the Fury would reach its target in thirteen hours, drop its payload in a single pass from an altitude of 1000 feet, and return to the airstrip, all without being detected. As weapons systems go, however, the Night Fury was a World War I biplane compared to the simple white powder contained within its cargo bay. Even if loaded with American Hellfire missiles, or 4500 pounds of conventional ordinance, the killing power of the Fury paled in comparison to the nanometer-sized virions it now carried.

Before its eradication in 1979, the smallpox virus killed more than 500 million people. Influenza, also a viral disease, is estimated to have killed 100 million throughout history, and if one were to ask the leading biomedical researchers studying past and present pandemics, they would tell you the next big killer will likely be a mutation of a known coronavirus—a new variant of SARS or MERS—which spread through the air and enter the body via the lungs.

In recent decades, a group of viral diseases has emerged that have captivated the social conscience. Although they’ve had minimal impact compared to smallpox and influenza, they kill their victims in a much more terrifying fashion. They are members of the “viral hemorrhagic fever” family and include the Ebola, Marburg, and Lassa viruses. Each of these pathogens cause multiple organ failure, internal bleeding, and hemorrhaging from mucosal membranes—eyes, mouth, and GI tract. All three are classified as biosafety level 4 pathogens, but fortunately, intimate contact between individuals is required to pass the virus, thus limiting their ability to rapidly spread beyond borders.

If the lethality of smallpox was combined with the airborne spread of influenza and the dramatic mode of death seen with the viral hemorrhagic fevers, you’d have what the world will soon come to know as the Wuhan Supervirus.

There were many things to admire about the Supervirus. First, its simplicity. Its creation was complex—a noninfectious strain of the coronavirus upregulated by splicing new genes into its existing genome—but it was still just a virus, a particle consisting of a single strand of RNA inside a protein envelope. Its lifecycle was simple as well. Find a host. Enter the host’s cells. Insert its RNA into the host’s DNA and then wait as the host cell’s machinery creates millions of new viral particles. When the host cell has completed its duties, it bursts open releasing the newly created virions, which move onto the next cell—invade, replicate, repeat.

The second admirable quality of the Supervirus was its ease of production, delivery, and propagation. The virus was easily mass produced, grown by the ton in giant bioreactors, then purified and dried into a simple white powder. The viral powder was then exposed to two basic elements, silicon and oxygen, forming silicon dioxide, or glass—or more specifically, superfine glass known as silica nanopowder. As the name implies, the silica particles are nanometers in size, small enough to coat individual virions. This process makes the virus “smooth” and “slippery” and gives the white powder an ultrafine consistency like bath talc. It’s creamy to the touch and readily dissipates into the air, quickly becoming invisible and drifting for tens if not hundreds of miles, carried on the slightest currents and slipping through the smallest openings in any surface—through cracks in walls, gaps in windowsills, down chimneys and along ventilation ducts—behaving more like a gas than a solid. In summary, this glass-coated virus could go anywhere and everywhere. And it could sit for days, or even weeks, on any object or surface, waiting for a breeze or gust of wind or for someone to simply walk by and kick up an invisible cloud of viral particles that could then be inhaled by unknowing victims.

And the third admirable quality of the Supervirus? In animal studies it had a mortality rate of 100 percent. You breathe it in, you’re dead.

 

 

Chapter 2

 

One year before the inaugural mission of the Night Fury
Washington, D.C.
Basement, West Wing of the White House
The Situation Room

 

“Gentleman, I have come here to discuss, and plan for, the greatest threat mankind will ever face. Within a matter of months we will be exposed to a new viral pandemic whose lethality and ability to spread are magnitudes greater than the CoVid19 coronavirus that is now sweeping the globe.”

The man speaking was Colonel Jonathan Neville, United States Army, director of DARPA—the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—and commander, Biosafety Level 4 Laboratory, Fallon, Nevada. The men to whom he was speaking included the National Security Advisor, the Director of Homeland Security, the Director of National Intelligence, the Secretary of Defense, the Director of the CIA, the Secretary of the Navy, the White House Chief of Staff, and the President of the United States.

Wearing his impeccably tailored “dress greens,” Neville stood tall and fit at the head of the table with two stacks of file folders in front of him and an array of screens mounted on the wall behind him. The president sat at the far end, slouched in his chair, already looking distracted and fidgety.
The colonel circled the table, placing folders titled WUHAN SUPERVIRUS, with CLASSIFIED stamped in red ink, in front of each attendee. “In these files,” Neville said, “is a report compiled by a trusted colleague of mine in the KIBR.”

“The KIBR?” asked the idiot chief of staff, who had neither the experience nor the synaptic capacity to run the White House.

“The Korean Institute for Biological Research,” Neville replied. “It’s the equivalent of our USAMRIID, the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease.”

Each of the officials shared looks of concern, then opened their folders and thumbed through the pages.

“This report,” Neville continued, “contains credible evidence that China has developed, and plans to use, a bioweapon of unprecedented destructiveness. The South Korean National Intelligence Service recently secured a weaponized strain of the CoVid19 coronavirus, which they have classified as CoVid23. The NIS believes the Chinese are going to release CoVid23 in countries already affected by the current pandemic. They fear the mortality rate could reach as high as eighty percent, compared to the two percent we’re currently seeing. And they believe the Chinese will claim that this new, more deadly strain is a natural mutation of the CoVid19 L strain we are presently dealing with.”

CIA director Mike Kelly closed his file, scrutinized the front and back covers, then tossed it onto the table. “What the hell is this?” he said. “Nobody comes into the president’s daily brief and presents classified material that has not been called to the attention of, and vetted by, the Central Intelligence Agency.”

All eyes moved from Mike Kelly to Jonathan Neville. Neville took a moment to savor his position of authority over the president’s hand-selected group of buffoons and yes-men. Then he calmly said, “The president has already seen it.”

“Mr. President,” Kelly said, “with all due respect, you’ve allowed a colonel in the United States Army to circumvent the well-established channels for handling materials with national security implications.”

The president sat up straight. “Jonathan and I go way back. He’s as much a trusted advisor as any of you.”

“In spite of that, this report has not been—”

“Let him finish,” the president said sharply.

“But Mr. President, between myself and the Director of National Intelligence, sixteen intelligence agencies are represented at this table. Don’t you think the Korean NIS would have passed this on to anyone other than an army colonel who works with germs?”

“Passing a potential bioweapon to someone that spends his days studying bioweapons makes perfect sense to me,” the president replied, “so let him finish.”

“Thank you, sir,” Neville said. “My colleague in the KIBR has performed preliminary animal studies to confirm the virulence of the agent, and it turns out to be a very bad actor. Within seven to ten days of airborne exposure, the mammalian species tested—everything from mice to monkeys—experienced rapid enlargement of certain lymphoid organs.”

“Layman’s terms?” said General Harold “Harry” Beckwith, Secretary of Defense.

“Some lymphoid organs, such as the thymus and bone marrow, produce immune cells, while others, like the lymph nodes and spleen, filter the blood and lymphatic system, removing toxins and invading microorganisms. In the preliminary animal studies, the pulmonary lymph nodes and the spleen rapidly enlarged and either ruptured, causing massive hemorrhage in the case of the spleen, or impinged on and damaged surrounding structures, in the case of the lymph nodes in the chest. In all studies, the mortality rate was one hundred percent.”

“And this is an airborne agent,” said Admiral Bill Richards, Secretary of the Navy.

“Yes,” replied Neville.

“Christ,” said Joseph Steadman, Director of Homeland Security.

“Mr. President,” Kelly said, “this must be confirmed.”

“I’ve already confirmed it,” Neville replied. “I have the virus. I repeated the Korean experiments. I achieved the same results. That, Mr. Kelly, is the scientific method.”

“That, Colonel Neville, is not how matters of national security are handled,” Mike Kelly said. “You don’t acquire a potential weapon of mass destruction from an enemy state, dick around with it in a high school biology lab, then go straight to the president without telling anyone else.”

Neville stood stoically, his calm expression revealing nothing, while internally he was scoffing at the CIA director’s idiocy and ignorance. With perhaps a couple of exceptions—the general and the admiral—everyone else seated at the table were ignorant idiots, handed cabinet positions not because they earned them or were uniquely qualified, but because they had donated to the president’s election campaign, or had gained his favor in some other way.

“Okay,” said National Security Advisor Rex Masterson, “let’s say we confirm the Chinese are, in fact, engaging in an act of biowarfare. What’s our next move?”

“I’d like to fast track a program to further classify the agent, determine its potential modes of human transmission, and develop a vaccine to prevent infection and devise treatment protocols for those that become infected.”

“What kind of timeframe are we dealing with?” Masterson asked.

“Korean intelligence believes the attack will happen within six months, if not sooner.”

“Is it realistic to think,” Admiral Bill Richards said, “we can go from classifying an unknown bioagent, to finding a vaccine that will kill it, and widely disseminating that drug in six months? The pharmaceutical companies are struggling to come up with a vaccine for the current coronavirus.”

“That’s the consequence of being tied down by myriad FDA regulations. We have also been working on a vaccine, but because we’ve been playing by the rules we are not even close to human testing. So yes, the six-month timeframe is a daunting prospect, but if we devote the full resources of the US military, and bend or even bypass a few regulations, we can get it done.”

Jonathan Neville walked around the table, handing each of the men a second file folder. This one had OPERATION GENE MIST printed across the top with CLASSIFIED stamped below. “Inside you will find maps and pages of data, demographics, statistics, etcetera, but let me summarize the major points.”

Neville returned to the head of the table and tapped his laptop. A map of the state of Nevada filled the largest of the monitors hanging on the wall behind him. “This,” the colonel aiming his laser pointer at a speck in the western part of the state, “is Fallon, Nevada, home to Naval Air Station, Fallon and the TOPGUN training program, and also the site of a biosafety level four USAMRIID laboratory, or a BSL 4 lab. Four is the top biosafety designation, meaning BSL Fallon, which I command,” Neville directing his comments at Mike Kelly, “is designed to contain and study nature’s most deadly and contagious pathogens, unlike your local high school biology lab. With BSL Fallon we already have the infrastructure in place to develop and manufacture a vaccine and treatment. As we speak, the proteins coating the virus are being sequenced, and when this is complete, we will proceed with the development and testing of potential vaccines.”

General Beckwith said, “And I suppose the testing phase is where the bending and breaking of regulations is going to occur.”

“Yes.” Neville tapped his laptop, pulling up a detailed map of Western Nevada. “The town of Fallon is a well circumscribed community of 8500 people, and by circumscribed, I mean the town proper is surrounded by pastures, crops, the desert, and mountains. The nearest population centers are Reno and Carson City, both sixty miles up the highway”—Neville highlighting the cities with his laser pointer—“and more importantly, sixty miles upwind. It’s important to note the prevailing winds coming down out of the Sierra Nevada are relentless. Hardly a day goes by that they haven’t kicked up by the early afternoon, and downwind from Fallon is little more than sagebrush, abandoned mines, and deserted buildings.” The colonel turned and faced the room. “Once we have a vaccine, we will vaccinate the local population, then expose them to the CoVid23 virus.”

“Without their knowledge,” Admiral Richards said.

“Yes,” Neville replied. “We don’t have the time—”

“C’mon,” Mike Kelly said, lurching forward in his chair. “Do you hear what you’re saying?”

“Unfortunately,” Neville replied, “we find ourselves in the position of possibly sacrificing a few for the benefit of many. If we adhere to the FDA regulations for new vaccine development, including lengthy animal and human trials and we get bogged down by ethics protocols, millions of Americans will die before we even complete the paperwork.”

Rex Masterson said, “What is the average failure rate of all vaccines?”

“Six to eight percent,” Neville replied.

Masterson tapped the screen of his phone, then looked up at Neville. “So somewhere between 510 to 680 US citizens may develop this one-hundred-percent-fatal lymphoid disease.”

“During the early stages of testing, we’ll use progressively sophisticated animal models until we achieve a failure rate under two percent. Only then will we test it on humans.”

“That still calculates to 170 deaths,” Masterson said.

“Look,” Neville replied, “I know this sounds quite unsavory—”

“Unsavory?” Kelly said. “How about illegal and immoral?” He turned toward the president. “Mr. President, please, this conversation is absurd and should be shut down right now. Let me verify the intelligence before we proceed with such a ridiculous plan.”

Speaking slowly and deliberately, Jonathan Neville said, “With regard to the CoVid19 pandemic, it is my opinion that we have dodged a huge bullet. A million plus cases? A hundred thousand deaths? We can recover from those numbers. A new pandemic with a mortality rate of eighty percent instead of two will cause many millions of deaths, blow up what’s left of the health care system and the economy, and result in the collapse of the Unites States. Therefore,” Neville now speaking directly to the CIA director, “urgent drug development must get done, and somebody has to bear that burden.”

“And if your CoVid23 plague doesn’t materialize, society remains standing, and we’re left with a bunch of dead people in a tiny town?” Mike Kelly said.

“We blame the cluster of unusual deaths on an environmental toxin, or contaminated drinking water, or a virus unique to Western Nevada.”

“You implied that the prevailing winds will protect Reno and Carson City?” said Homeland Security director Joe Steadman, “but all it’ll take is one vaccine non-responder to drive sixty miles, make human contact, and the virus will spread beyond your containment zone.”

“Or someone gets on a plane and flies to LA or San Francisco,” added Harry Beckwith.

“To be effective, a bioweapon requires human-to-human transmission,” Neville explained. “An infected person arrives in Reno or Carson City, coughs and sneezes and shakes a bunch of hands, and within weeks ninety percent of the population has contracted the same infection. Regarding the Wuhan bioweapon, it is an airborne virus, but we don’t yet understand its mode of transmission. If it is not transmitted by human-to-human contact, if someone has to throw handfuls of it into the wind, or drop it out of a plane, it will kill many people, but it will fail as a large-scale weapon. If indeed the virus is passed from human to human, this will prove to be the deadliest infectious disease ever faced by mankind, and we’ll need to impose a draconian lockdown on the people of Fallon while we vaccinate the rest of the country.”