Off-Limits Area

Have we really reached the point of no return? Coupled with the latest scientific research conducted by Washington experts, this is closer to fact than we realise and there is very little we can do to change the future. Marine engineer Kristin Baker advises the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu on environmentally sustainable development projects. After meeting US Navy Commander Nicholas Page, she discovers her unwitting role in the Exodus Project, a scheme to protect the West's interests in the face of global warming. But what neither know is that a stealth virus has quietly become a global pandemic; one that health authorities cannot stop. For this virus hasn't emerged from an African jungle or a remote Chinese province, it's come from within our own DNA.

Chapter 1 Optimised PCR methods for detection of (the) TTV (virus) found, to our amazement, that thirty three percent of volunteer blood donors are infected with it. The virus is ubiquitous. In another PCR-improved study by Japanese researchers, TTV was detected in ninety two percent of the general population ... There are a lot of healthy people carrying the virus (Mushahwar says) which raises the question: 'What are these viruses doing in humans and not causing disease?' --Leslie Pray: The Mysterious TT Virus--What Is It? The Scientist 15[15]:22 July 23, 2001 In Washington DC, Presidential Science Advisor Jean Simmons was in her White House office, preparing to leave for a panicky heads of state meeting, following a forum that had achieved nothing, but scared everyone. Jean wished she could go home, call in sick, and sleep. She felt sick all right, sick of heart. But people in her position did not take sick leave for something so mundane as a divorce. Jean had to keep reminding herself how many others in the White House were currently 'negotiating marriage dissolutions'. They came to work every day, smiled, planned, plotted, connived, back-stabbed and played the ugliest, most addictive game on the planet without thinking twice about being publicly declared unfit spouses. In fact, most of them wore it as a badge of honour, a declaration of their sacrifice in support of the administration. How noble. Opening her compact mirror to freshen her lipstick, she examined her tired face. How many of them had to deal with their husbands having an affair with a boy twenty years his junior? Not only had she failed as a wife, she had failed as a woman. Jean tucked a wayward lock of burgundy hair behind her ear, snapped the compact closed and slipped it into her pocket. She picked up her copy of the Kamchatka Statement and dropped it into her briefcase. The issues it dealt with trivialized her personal problems; for it was an admission that the world's last superpower was finally being humbled--by an ocean current. Jean went to shut down her computer, but the desktop file on Kristin Baker stared at her accusingly. She attached it to an email then added as an after-thought, 'This was the State Department's idea, not mine,' and sent a copy to Commander Nicholas Page. Her office door opened in a flurry of waving papers and angry voices. Straightening her cream-coloured jacket, Jean pasted a concerned look on her face when the Director of the CDC, Andreas Clem, strode in. "I'm telling you, Jack,' Clem was saying to the short, obese man trailing behind him. 'The President better be informed before he leaves because the implications are already trickling out on the Internet. It won't be long before some science journalist comes up with a very realistic prognosis.' Jack Obermann, the Assistant Secretary of Health, snapped, 'There's enough apocalyptic garbage being bandied about in Kamchatka without you adding to the hysteria.' Both men seemed oblivious to Jean's presence. "Hysteria,' Clem said flatly and glared at Obermann. 'You'll know all about hysteria once this hits the wire services! Dammit, you've got this bureaucratic idée fixe that the CDC's mandate is to react to rather than prevent epidemics! Hell, during the '11 cholera epidemic, the government spent more money and resources on congressional finger pointing than containing the outbreak! "So here we are again,' he added, tossing his hands in the air. 'You stuck your damned heads in the sand and hoped it would go away. Well it hasn't! Jean!' Clem finally turned to her. 'You tell him!' Jean walked around her desk, shutting her briefcase as she went. 'Tell him what, Andreas? That Earth's defence mechanisms are finally going to wipe out the human plague with an immune response?' She was too tired to be tactful, even to Clem. The CDC Director's dark eyes narrowed. 'You haven't read my email, have you? God dammit, Jean, this is not some imaginary scenario we're playing here. We've been collecting data on Rhesus for six years and--' "It can wait a couple more days,' Obermann said, placing a pacifying hand on Clem's arm. He tossed Jean an apologetic look. 'I'll set up a meeting with the chief of staff when the President returns from Kamchatka.' Jean picked up her briefcase to leave, but she stopped when she saw Clem's expression. "What blood type are you?' he demanded brusquely. She froze. 'Why?' "Because at the rate the Rhesus virus is spreading, especially through DC,' Clem said, turning to Obermann. 'It's entirely possible you're already infected. Both of you.' A perfect reason to excuse herself from this trip. She could go home and c And what? Jean's professionalism suddenly cut in. Rhesus had been around for years; everyone knew it was harmless. So what was agitating the normally soft-spoken CDC director? Obermann's ruddy features darkened and the spidery veins on his nose throbbed. "Your blood pressure's showing again, Jack,' Jean said and motioned for them to leave. She closed and locked her office door, then turned to Clem. 'Okay, Andreas, walk with us. Tell us the latest and if I think you have a case, I'll convince the Secret Service to let you on Air Force One to Kamchatka, because that's the only way you're going to see the President in any kind of hurry. Better call your wife and tell her you're going to be late for dinner.' Two hours later, Andreas Clem glanced out the tiny window of Air Force One. He'd risen to his position over the bodies--literally--of good men who'd worked themselves into an early grave. He had resolved that he wasn't going out the same way, but right now, he wasn't so sure. Despite the air conditioning, he was sweating and his heart was racing. His hand shook as he wiped his face with a napkin. He was scared. No, he thought, be honest, you're terrified. After 9-11, the Army Institute for Infectious Diseases--USAMRIID--had slowly usurped the CDC's investigative and management aspects of disease outbreaks, on the premise that such outbreaks might be bio-attacks. Within ten years, USAMRIID had been better equipped, both clinically and tactically, to deal with epidemics, and the CDC had inherited a new mandate: the restructuring of the disastrous US public health care system. Economically gored by the Iraq War, the federal government had tossed the burden of public hospitals and health care programs onto state and county budgets already teetering on bankruptcy. The result had been an unprecedented nationwide closure of hospitals and clinics. The ACR cholera outbreak in 2011 and the successive collapse of insurance companies worldwide triggered even more closures. Now, on the eve of a new pandemic, American Insurance had folded. And the CDC's job was to wave a magic wand and make it all better. What's not to be terrified of? Trying to calm himself, Clem took a few deep breaths. Outside, the sky had darkened and stars were visible, not because it was nightfall but because Air Force One was an SP--a Space Plane. He wasn't impressed by the view; it served only to remind him how small the planet was. International flights were the perfect vector for plague organisms. "You're up.' Jean tapped him on the shoulder. Startled, Clem sat up. 'You read my report?' "The whole thing. I've briefed the President; he'll give you a couple of minutes.' Clem stood and adjusted his rumpled coat and tie. He wished he'd had the time to get cleaned up and changed; his bags were still in the DC hotel. "And Andreas,' Jean added. 'You have my unequivocal support--if you agree to hold off announcing this until we formulate a response.' After the introductions, President Edwin Blake took off his glasses and stared at Clem. 'Jean tells me that a plague virus has infected a significant percentage of the American population. After what we went through in 2011, why wasn't I informed sooner?' He wasn't angry, but his voice carried a depth of annoyance. "Sir,' Obermann cut in. 'The Rhesus virus doesn't kill people. It doesn't even make them sick.' Doesn't kill people; Clem closed his eyes in disbelief. Party politics, not professional competence had landed Obermann the role of Assistant Secretary of Health. Obermann still thought like a doctor--a mediocre one at that--not a public health professional. "So what's the problem?' President Blake sat back in his chair and tapped his steepled fingers together. "The CDC has just discovered a staggering side-effect.' Jean held up the report. President Blake stared at Clem. 'Explain.' Clem ran his hands through his wiry black hair. 'Sir, we initially thought the Rhesus virus only attacked a protein coating on human blood cells. This protein is an agglutinogen that alerts the immune system to produce antibodies against disease.' The President frowned and sat forward. 'It's another immunodeficiency virus, like AIDS?' "No, sir. Blood group substances are weak antigens; they don't play a significant role in protecting the body from disease.' "Blood groups,' explained Jean, 'are defined by the Rhesus or RH Factor, which denotes the presence or absence of the protein.' She glanced warily at Clem. 'It now seems that destruction of these proteins by the virus is just a symptom of a vastly more complex condition. Andreas is worried about the ultimate consequences.' "Sterility.' Clem ignored Obermann's pleading look. Now that he was finally getting someone's attention he felt a little calmer--but not complacent; he would not be made the fall guy. "So it's a secondary complication, like the mumps, right?' Blake said, looking at Clem. "No, sir.' Jean shook her head. 'Sterility is the primary consequence of the disease. The Rhesus virus is spreading fast and it's...' "One hundred percent contagious,' Clem said flatly, his eyes focused on the President's. "In Rh-positive blood groups only,' injected Obermann; his bureaucratic mind at work. "And one hundred percent of victims become sterile,' Clem finished. President Blake blanched as the implications hit him. 'Everyone..?' Clem nodded. Blake looked at Obermann and Simmons, then asked in a dangerously low voice, 'How long have you known this?' Obermann swallowed and looked at Jean, who had the grace to blush. Clem wasn't feeling so generous, but he was still a political animal. Pointing fingers now was a waste of time. They were too late, years too late. 'Mr. President,' he said tiredly, 'we've lived with the possibility of a doomsday bug since Ebola reared its ugly head. And AIDS is, in effect, a slow burning Andromeda. We knew Rhesus was destroying these proteins. And we knew it was spreading fast. But as Dr. Obermann pointed out, no one's been getting sick. Hell, Rh-negatives don't even have the protein so the virus was considered a harmless curiosity.' "After the cholera epidemic the CDC should have been alerted to such a possibility!' Blake snapped. 'Need I remind you of what happened to your predecessor?' Staring pointedly at Obermann, Clem said, 'After which the previous administration ordered the CDC to hand over all of our research on Rhesus to USAMRIID. In all fairness to the army, there are hundreds of thousands of bacteria and viruses in existence, any one of which has the potential to become a plague organism. In 2011, USAMRIID could not justifiably allocate resources to study one of many seemingly innocuous viruses while the worst epidemic since Swine Flu ravaged the country. "The draconian methods the army used to control cholera worked, but they were deeply offensive to the American people and arguably cost the previous administration the election. Although your administration reinstated the CDC's original mandate and we've been collecting data on the spread of Rhesus, our budget is still a joke--and USAMRIID still has control of our research.' "It's the damned Republican dominated Congress,' the President declared. 'They keep vetoing the budget.' Always watching your political butt. 'Yes, sir,' Clem continued. 'However you look at it the CDC has been set up to take the fall--again. We're not in a position to deal with any major disease outbreak. We're fighting a losing battle against incurable tuberculosis and STDs, West Nile virus, dengue, toxic algae blooms--the list is endless and exacerbated by climate change--while trying to re-establish ourselves as a creditable institution! I've spent hours juggling our budget and personnel in a desperate bid to fund the most basic investigations into the epidemiology of Rhesus. There's no money to study the virus itself. I'm not having the CDC wear this; there are too many dedicated people there. You need a scapegoat? Here's my letter of resignation.' He produced an envelope from his file case. The envelope was empty; he had no intention of being tossed into career obscurity, but he knew how to play the game. The President waved it aside. 'No, not this time. This time Congress is gonna wear the burden of its stonewalling, I'll see to that. What I need is your recommendations. Can we contain it? Forcibly quarantine the infected, like the army did with cholera victims?' His eyes darted between them. Jean touched her wrist comunit and motioned to Clem; they were over time. Leaning forward, his hand movements punctuating the urgency in his voice, Clem said, 'No, sir. Quarantine is useless because Rhesus is not infectious, and although I used the term contagious, that's not strictly accurate. The trigger, not the virus, is spreading like a contagion. You see, people can't catch Rhesus from one another because it's already inside of them--it's an endogenous retrovirus. That means it's hitchhiking in the DNA of people with Rhesus positive blood, just waiting to be switched on. I've seen some nightmare microbes but Rhesus scares the hell out of me because it's in our genes.' He stared at each of them in turn to emphasize his point. 'It's part of what makes us human.' A shocked silence followed. The President ran a hand across the back of his neck, the asked, 'What percentage of the population are threatened?' "Rh-negative is a genetically recessive trait that should have evolved into extinction,' replied Clem. 'Why it hasn't ... well, maybe a genetic failsafe evolved at the same time as the virus. If we can't stop Rhesus, at least Rh-negatives assure the continuation of the human species.' "Don't beat about the bush,' Blake snapped. "With all due respect, sir, I'm not. Ninety-two percent of the US population is Rh-positive--and up to sixty percent of these have already been infected. But politically, that's not the worst of it. Despite the current low rate in Asia and Africa, unchecked, the virus will go active in almost one hundred percent of non-Caucasians.' "Good God!' Blake sat back in his chair and looked at Obermann. 'Jack, talk to me.' Obermann swallowed and stammered. Jean said, 'Sir, if Rhesus really is in the genes of everyone who's Rh-positive, the demographics are undeniable. Virtually one hundred percent of all Amerindians and subgroups: South American Indians, Eskimos, Pacific Islanders and Asians, are Rh-positive. For African Americans,' she glanced at Clem, 'it's as high as ninety-six percent, and even the Rh-negatives in them are from the injection of Caucasian genes in previous centuries. For native Africans it's near enough to one hundred percent.' "We're still running down statistics.' Obermann had finally found his voice. 'Hispanics are better off because the Rh-negative gene originated in Spain, where thirty percent of the Basques are negative--' "Okay, okay, I get the picture,' Blake interrupted. 'But Caucasians are almost as badly off, right?' "About eighty-seven percent,' Jean replied. 'But we're talking racial extinction for non-Caucasians.' "How soon before you have a cure?' "Sir, no one has ever developed a cure for a virus,' Obermann said. Blake frowned. 'What do you mean? Of course they have!' Obermann shook his head. 'Vaccinations to prevent catching some viruses, and anti-virals that inhibit the reproduction of others, yes, but no silver bullet.' "Besides, Rhesus is endogenous,' said Clem. 'It's already in every cell of the body, and there's been next to no research on it. When we first learned about AIDS we thought we'd have it licked within five years. Forty years on--' Blake stopped him with a raised hand. 'So unless you prevent it spreading, ninety-two percent of the population will be sterile in ... How long do you estimate?' Obermann stared upwards. 'No reliable estimates, sir, but based on the CDC's figures--which are yet to be verified--and given whatever triggered it will probably circulate the planet in a number of waves--' "Get on with it!' the President snapped. Silencing Obermann with a look, Clem said, 'It's not ninety-two percent. That's just Europe and the US. Factoring in Asia and Africa, over ninety-nine point nine percent of mankind will be sterile within ten years.