Underlying Crimes
A Bio-crime Series

LAST CHAPTER and First Chapter of upcoming Biocrime Novel

Here is my LAST chapter of Underlying Crimes. Also the FIRST chapter of my upcoming new Biocrime novel.

Chapter 47  Postscript

 

“CAN YOU BELIEVE what they did!” Jack punched Hong lightly on his arm to punctuate.

“Foolhardy, but fun, fun fun!” Hong was excited by the news that ran rampant through the synbio bloggers and microbio gene hacking networks. The so-called ‘stupid’ experiment created a dangerous airborne strain of bird flu. The experiment had now been replicated in a number of university labs. The newly created bird flu virus could be transmitted in the air from human to human. This experiment was even more frightening than the gene swapping used to reconstruct the 1918 “Spanish flu”. The 1918 flu killed 2% of the population. Bird flu, designated H5N1, had a kill rate of over 60%, but contagion was limited to direct contact with birds. It had not been airborne.

Ever since the synthesizing of the polio virus, any virus could now be created from scratch. But the H5N1 virus was even more dangerous because it didn’t need to be constructed. Its worldwide availability made its destructive power immense on a global scale. It could create a potentially lethal pandemic.

Jack Ashbell and his buddy Hong Min Chan had been bio-hacking since the earliest advent of do-it-yourself science. Even as kids, they would hang out in Jack’s basement lab where they toyed with chemistry sets and microscopes back in elementary school. Jack inherited the family home in rural southern Rhode Island where he had grown up with his grandparents. His unmarried mother had died in childbirth. Jack grew up with few constraints and little guidance.

Jack was a tinkerer in more than one sense of the word. He had gone about his scientific tinkering with wild abandon. He still had his barrels of Tinkertoys that he used to model his molecular creations.

Recipes and genetic concoctions had been their two main diversions. With their DNA synthesizer, the pair replicated relatively innocuous genetic sequences. Mostly they design harmless but bizarre bacterial creations. Scented bacteria like E.coli that smelled like bananas or wintergreen mint. Jack had thrust the flask under Hong’s nose who at first objected. “Oh, it doesn’t smell like sh**!”

Fluorescence genes, from a glowing green jellyfish, had been added to bacteria. The glow-in-the-dark bacterial flasks lined a shelf above the lab bench. The lab was littered with second-hand lab equipment: a microfuge for test tubes, thermo-cycler incubators, microscopes, chemicals, glassware galore. For growing cells and microbes, there were fermenters and roller bottles full of opaque custard-like orange media. In the dim light, the four bioreactor spinner flasks lined up side by side looked like Pokemon toys, their double barreled inlets resembled ears. Against the far wall, for heating, cooling and freezing, stood an old autoclave, kitchen refrigerator and a large freezer stacked with centrifuge freezer boxes. Jack and Hong indulged themselves with a PCR machine, a DNA synthesizer that made targeted copies of DNA sequences. They also had the essential gel box that looked like a shallow flat Jello mold. It was used for making short strands of proteins and separating DNA and RNA with an electric current.  

 

Jack was the scientist. He read about the nation’s scientific advisors who cautioned about the “seven experiments of concern” that could cause a biologic threat. Together he and Hong would pull out the Tinkertoys and construct models. They were hell-bent on usurping the legitimate scientists. Neither was rule-bound. Both were frustrated on their mundane day jobs. And they wanted to create the next generation of bioweapons. 

Jack had the right background, a PhD in microbiology. He explained to Hong, “Yes, do no harm with biologic agents or toxins…..or microbes, especially bacteria and viruses. The seven ‘commandments’ as I interpret them are, DO NOT make microbes 1) that are more deadly, 2) that disrupt immunity, 3) that are resistant to antibiotics, antivirals or vaccines, 4) that are more contagious and easily transmitted, for example in air, 5) that can infect more hosts, i.e. other animals, 6) that can make their animal hosts more susceptible, and 7) DO NOT generate a new or novel pathogen, a ‘de novo’.”

“So, the ‘commandments’ said, do not create new or altered lifeforms…that will destroy us.” Together Jack and Hong constructed their Tinkertoys. They were like kids playing in a crèche with building blocks, the synthetic biologists called “biobricks”.

They sat back on their lab stools to admire their Tinkertoy creations that modeled the “seven experiments of concern”.

“Anything is possible, and I am sure we have the right materials and ingredients to concoct the right cocktail. After all, it’s not rocket science, is it?” Jack exclaimed as the two buckled over in paroxysms of laughter.

Hong managed the Animal Colony holding rooms where the university’s research animals were segregated by species: mice, rabbits, gerbils, guinea pigs and ferrets. On Hongs next trip home to China, he would collect samples from chicken that died from bird flu, H5N1. They already had a freezer full of H1, H2, H3 flu viruses along with the E. coli and other common microbes. They had their sources.

 

You don’t need animals and nature to resort and reshuffle genetic material, like in the Allbio case. Just a lab, somewhere, with rogues idiotic enough to play with death.

The college animal facility on the university campus in Rhode Island housed mammals for research: mice, rabbits, ferrets and other rodents. Basic science; that was all the animals were used for. But that didn’t stop the two colleagues, a would-be-scientist and an animal technician, from playing on their own. The two buddies were partners in invention. Hong tended to the animals needed for experimentation. He supplied the college scientists with research animals. At the same time, he bred ferrets and mice for an ill-conceived project, a “stupid science” project that would surpass the newest variation of bird flu H5N1. They would tinker and produce an airborne H5N1 more deadly than variations already concocted in a few university labs.

Hong and his friend Jack would ensure that their newer, fully weaponized breed of H5N1 would be invincible. Not only easily transmitted by air droplets from human to human, but it would be laden with every possible gene of destruction and death. In addition to being passed easily between humans, it would also attack the victim’s immunity, render vaccines totally ineffective, and warrant the newest antiviral drugs useless. There was no cure. 100% lethal. Fatal to humans, few if any could survive. There would be certain death to all exposed. Perhaps some island dwellers could survive, in places isolated from the rest of the world. Maybe in a far away island like Tristan de Cunha, over 1700 miles from the nearest land, the two friends would escape together and live in splendid isolation.

Hong Min Chan controlled and managed the Animal Colony holding rooms where the animals were segregated by species. On his annual trip back home to China, Hong collected samples from chicken that died from the non-aerosol form of bird flu, H5N1. A virulent virus, but it was easily contained in plastic vials encased in triplicate hard plastic containers, like cocooned Russian matryoshka dolls. The cultures went undetected by x-ray and sniffers dogs. Hong housed the H5N1 samples along with the H1, H2, and H3 virus cultures in Jack’s old but dedicated freezer. He was not stupid.

Hong’s buddy and cohort, Jack Ashbell, concocted a mix of nucleic acids. Jack had access to the nucleic acid synthesizer in the University lab in a nearby town. He used it to construct an array of nucleic acids, the building blocks of DNA and RNA. Together Jack and Hong mixed the viruses and nucleic acids, played with gene vectors as if they were transporter toys, and hoped they had compiled the essential genetic mix to create the most deadly superbug ever know to man. It would surpass the lethality of the lab created superbug, airborne H5N1, that had been kept under lock and key at high security BSL-3 labs.

The first of the ferrets died. It was the tenth generation of ferrets infected with the cocktail of transfected viruses. Hidden away in the ceiling cavity of the “dirty” room, the ferrets went undetected. Hong climbed through the HVAC access each evening during his usual shift.

Hong called Jack on his cell phone. “The uninfected ferrets in the next cage are dying. We have to be careful! If this new mutant H5N1 gets out, it could cause the plague of the millennium!”

A remote controlled plane flew just above the campus buildings of the rural college. It was 2:45 AM when the 12 foot wingspan neared the animal housing facility. You could hear the slight whir of its electric engine. The plane’s wings and entire body had been painted black. The initials SLAC (Stop Lab Animal Cruelty) were painted in green lettering on the top side of the wings. The forward part of the fuselage contained a built-in drop box large enough to hold several pounds of explosives. A central pan in the drop box allowed the contents to be released. Candy was often the usual cargo. Tonight it was packed with C4 and a detonator. The plane’s nose dropped, aimed directly at it target, the animal colony unit.

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