Half a decade ago or so I interviewed a former CDC expert for a History Channel piece. He used to be in charge of containing several outbreaks in Africa with Ebola and Marburg, the MERS outbreak in Malaysia, and couple of other hemorrhagic close calls. After leaving CDC, he was working out of a small university in South Texas where he ran the virology department. Somehow I got the feeling he had become an outcast at CDC, and they’d set him up to shut him up. I tracked him down after reading an article about his African ventures.
He was happy enough in the little town, had his own Biosafety Level-4 containment unit and several cute thesis students who required a lot of attention. He wore dirty clothes, played the drums, smoked sans filters, and early on the meeting slipped me a whiskey flask during a shooting break. I thought about the usual work ethic question for half a second and took a sip. He became as stiff as a German sports announcer when the camera lights were on so I had little to loose. Maybe the flask contained a question: was I to be trusted?
As time went by and I listened to his stories, I said no to the sips. I went for gulps. We eventually drove over to his house to get a full Jameson. By then I drank straight out of the bottle, sitting on his dirty living room carpet while his Labrador licked my face. We both smoked inside. The place was a total mess, the opposite of Bio Safety on Any Level, but that was the point. He was lovable. He was a virological Vonnegut, his disheveled brilliance was mixed with the type of suicidal humor that had already given up on humanity.
“Do you fish?” he would ask and guffaw, and I would not understand the question, but laugh back at the way he was laughing at me. Later in a side note, he explained how three of his CDC buddies had retired to a remote lake in Canada. “Hahaha! They can’t fish shit!” I took another swing.
Rewind half a day, while we are still both kind of serious. He had modeled a computer program that replicates the behavior of a cell under microbial attack but then scaled it up to match earthly dimensions. The model contained all the known outbreaks since the Middle Ages. In retrospect, I think this is what got him his job in Texas, far away from public limelight (except from tiny indie producers).
His life thesis was about understanding the macro-level implications of virological attacks. When a cell reaches a critical mass of the population, nature invariably starts to ping it with attacks, a self-preservation algorithm that strives for balance, with a set trajectory that is not random but perfectly predictable. Small attacks in gently increasing intervals increase until it hits the S-curve, at which stage the virus can mutate billions of times per day (per hour / per minute / per second…) to seek for the perfect loophole to take out a large chunk of a species (like say Ebola becoming airborne and set on the human genome).
The current Ebola outbreak reminded me of how this brilliant character used to laugh. And of course his timeline prediction for the end of the human species.
“5-10 years,” he’d burp, “max, haha!”
“Learn to fish!” He waved goodbye and then fell backwards into his dusty den.
For a year or so we exchanged emails and shared news. And sometime later that little town in Texas was destroyed by a hurricane and I never heard from him again.