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Stanley Johnson: I predicted a pandemic like this in my novel 40 years ago. Pray for a happy ending

By Stanley Johnson. Published in The Telegraph 21st March 2020

His 1982 novel, The Marburg Virus, focuses on the spread of a pandemic. Here, Stanley Johnson explains what we can learn from the tale

The Telegraph

I know I ought to be getting my head round this all. With my 80th birthday looming only five months ahead, I'm officially classified as 'vulnerable' and, like all of us over 70, have been invited to 'self-isolate'.

This week, a fellow-guest on the This Morning show, the brilliant Vanessa Feltz, gave me a stern ticking-off when, in response to a question put to me by the host, Philip Schofield, I admitted that even though the PM had advised against it, I could indeed imagine a situation where 'if I had to' I might go to the pub for a drink.

"How selfish is that!" Vanessa challenged me. "When is it 'absolutely necessary' to go to the pub? Surely we are all in this together."

Well, of course we are all in it together, Vanessa, but I must admit that I am filled with gloom at the prospect of months of isolation. I do understand that this is something that we have been asked to do to keep ourselves and others healthy, but it is going to take some practice.

Back at home I started to think a bit more about how to hack a clear path through this very thick jungle and emerge unscathed at the end.

One idea looms larger and larger in my thoughts. The prospect of a vaccine.

Back in 1982, I wrote a novel - The Marburg Virus - in which I imagined the outbreak of a deadly contagious virus. Unlike Covid-19, the origin of that outbreak is not in China but in New York, where a young woman recently returned from a visit to central Africa. Alarm bells first sound when laboratory examination of the patient's blood cells show she has been infected by a pathogen already known to science as the Marburg Virus. The pathogen was then, and remains today, top of the world's Red Alert list. It can be spread, not only through touching or close association, but even through aerosol transmission. A single sneeze in a crowded cinema could infect half the Bronx.

The basic driver of my plot was the pressure of time, the urgent need to find some antidote or means of immunization to protect populations before they were overwhelmed by the disease in spite of the measures of 'containment' or 'delay'.

And the key thing here, as Dr Lowell Kaplan, my American epidemiologist hero argued, was to go to the ends of the earth to track down the original source of the outbreak and to find a group of animals or humans who, while possibly still being 'carriers' of the disease, have managed to develop an immunity to it. This is the way, Kaplan maintained, that the scientists - armed with the necessary knowledge - would be able to develop a truly effective and precisely-targeted antidote or vaccine.

It was Franz Froschmaier, one of my German friends, who first told me about the Marburg Virus. Franz, like me, worked for the European Commission in Brussels at the end of the seventies. "Why don't you write about what happened in Marburg a few years back?" Franz said. "There was a mysterious outbreak of disease. They still don't know what caused it."

The next weekend I drove from Brussels to Marburg, an ancient university town, situated on the river Lahn, north of Frankfurt. At the medical school, I talked to students and the professors. Twenty-three people had been infected by the mystery Marburg virus, and twenty-three people had died. One hundred per cent mortality! One of the first to be infected was a medical student, a member of the Schlagende Verbindung, one of the university's famous duelling fraternities. Some of the other fatalities had also been medical students.

That was enough for me to put two and two together. What do medical students need, I asked myself, apart from beer and sex? Research facilities, obviously. And that meant mainly rats and mice but also whatever primates were still permitted to be used for research purposes. One of the professors assured me that a decade or so earlier, when the outbreak happened in Marburg, they were still using monkeys caught in the wild in Africa and imported into Germany.

By the time I returned to Brussels, I had sketched out a plot. Student infected by monkey in lab is a member of famous German duelling fraternity. Blood spilled in a duel infects a fellow student. The proximate cause of the infection is contact with a green monkey imported for research purposes from central Africa. When a new outbreak of the deadly Marburg Virus occurs in real time, threatening to become a pandemic, these historical insights will prove crucial.

I flew to Atlanta, Georgia to visit United States' famous Center for Disease Control (CDC). I went to Burundi to find green monkeys that could have been the source of the infection. My book's hero, Dr Lowell Kaplan, a brilliant epidemiologist working for the CDC, has an advantage over those engaged in the current race to find an antidote to the coronavirus. He knows, or thinks he knows, the original source of the infection. If he can track down and capture a live green monkey from the very tribe of monkeys which supplied the Marburg medical school at the time of the first outbreak, he calculates the boffins will be able to develop and manufacture an antidote and rush it out to stem the growing pandemic, so humanity can be saved.

Of course, there is a deal of skulduggery involved in the race to find an antidote or vaccine. In those days, biological warfare was a hot topic.

Will the fight against Covid-19 be as successful as my fictional hero was in fighting the Marburg Virus? We must hope so.

Thinking back to my own book, and its eventual happy ending, I can't help feeling that governments around the world, our own included, need to be ruthlessly focused now on the search for an antidote or vaccine. Without in any way diminishing the importance of precautionary measures of containment or mitigation, mass immunisation would surely prove a crucial factor in stopping the spread of Covid-19 or in preventing further outbreaks, e.g. the 'second wave' we are hearing about.

Following the Marburg experience (fictional though it may be) it seems to me much of the research should be aimed at tracking down the original pathways of the infection, including possible animal to human pathways. We need to work with the Chinese authorities to pursue this and other avenues. Perhaps there is a still a chance of finding, as Dr Lowell Kaplan did, some special 'reservoir group' of carriers, whose blood cells or genetic material may help find the vaccine or the antidote to Covid-19 in the nick of time. Was wildlife implicated? Where could that wildlife have come from? What trading patterns could have been involved? Was there movement of people too, as possible carriers? Questions must be asked. And answers must be found. There will need to be strong international cooperation, between East and West, North and South.

In the final chapter of my novel, the President of the United States, newly immunised as a result of a vaccine developed from the brain cells of a green monkey captured in Burundi, visits stricken patients in isolation units to show that the tide has turned in the fight against the disease. Drums roll. Trumpets sound. And, of course, the President gets re-elected!

Will the story of Covid-19, when it is published next year in hardback, paperback, e-book, audio and podcast, have a similarly happy ending? We can only hope so.

Stanley Johnson's novel The Marburg Virus was republished as The Virus in 2015 by Willam Morrow and is also available under that title from HarperAudio and HarperCollins e-books.

 

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