Frozen Pandemic

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William shuffles his papers, waiting for Rodney to take a seat on the other side of the office desk. A dated, cordless landline sits between them, waiting for their scheduled conference call with Janice Ammon, Director for the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control in Sweden. William hopes beyond hope that her promised “exciting news regarding a vaccine” is actually as earth-shaking as her memo made it sound.

Video conferencing is out of the question these days, but to prepare for the pandemic, the federal government built several telephone exchanges. They’re connected to dedicated phone lines powered by solar generators.

“I wanted to meet with you before our call with the ECDC to discuss the latest intel I received from the DoD,” says William when Rodney settles.

Rodney shakes his head. “For the last five years, the DoD has refused to share anything with us, and now all of a sudden… I wonder why they decided to change course.”

“At this point, there really isn’t any reason not to share what they’ve learned. They briefed me this morning, and I have to say… I’m not sure what to make of this news.” Rodney raises his eyebrows, so William gets to the point. “Apparently, the probe’s casing was made from an ‘unknown substance.’”

“Unknown substance?” Rodney runs a hand through his thinning hair. “As in, not from Earth?”

“No… Not necessarily. It could be a compound created on Earth, but one that hasn’t been previously identified. They also mentioned that the guidance system in the probe is unlike anything they’ve seen before. The technology is far too advanced to be Russian, North Korean, or Chinese.

“The DoD is convinced this attack was not state-sponsored.”

“Who has this kind of technology?” says Rodney, chasms forming in his wrinkled forehead.

William spreads his hands in a shrug. “No one that we’re aware of.”

“I wonder if we’ll ever find out who they are.”

“Well… whoever they are, at least they decided to provide us with a way to develop a vaccine.” William pauses. “Maybe. We hope. But what I don’t understand is, why? Why kill billions? Why hide the vaccine in these three mysterious individuals? We may never locate them.”

“True.” Rodney pounds the desk with an index finger. “Why leave it to chance?”

“Hopefully we’ll find the answer to that question someday.” William reaches for the phone. “It’s time for our conference call.”

William places the call and pushes the speaker button for Rodney. The line picks up with a click. “Hello, Janice, William Frieden here, with Rodney McDade. You mentioned you had some good news for us.”

“Hello, William… Rodney,” Janice says, speaking English with a clipped accent. “Yes, we may have developed a vaccine. We’re still in the process of verifying the results, but they look promising.”

William startles in his chair. He can feel his face stretch to match Rodney’s goofy, gawking grin. “That’s amazing news! How were you able to develop the vaccine so quickly?”

“It wasn’t a member of our staff. The person responsible is Karena Wilson.”

“That name sounds familiar,” William says. “Isn’t she the woman who won the Nobel Prize in physics several years ago?”

“That is her.”

William leans back, confused. “How is it that she discovered a vaccine, when her background is in nuclear engineering?”

“She must have found one of the immune individuals,” Rodney chimes in, “and used their blood to develop a vaccine.”

“Karena never mentioned working with someone,” says Janice, “let alone an immune person. She arrived here at the headquarters just after the initial outbreak.”

Rodney and William share a shrug.

William clears his throat. “Was she living in Sweden before the virus?”

“Yes, she has been living in Sweden since she was a child. Her home wasn’t far from the ECDC headquarters in Solna.”

Rodney is practically floating in his chair, lifting off of the arm rests to get closer to the speaker. “That’s amazing. We’ve been working on a vaccine for over five years and we’re not even close. Why didn’t you tell us about this discovery the moment Karena arrived? It’s been months since the first round of deaths.”

“If your government had shared the news of this virus when they originally discovered it,” Janice snaps in icy tones, “maybe we would have saved billions of lives! As far as I’m concerned, your government is to blame for all those deaths!”

Rodney sinks back in his chair, eyes wide with hurt, like a reprimanded child.

“I agree with you, Janice,” says William, “but there is nothing we can do at this point, except save the two hundred and fifty million people who are still alive. I personally regret not informing the public of this virus sooner, but I can’t change the past.”

“I agree, you can’t change the past,” Janice says, calm again, “but you have to understand that the people living in Europe are the ECDC’s first priority. Once we are certain of the results, we will synthesize a vaccine and distribute it to the survivors in Europe first. Please don’t take this the wrong way, but we need to distribute the vaccine to other parts of the world before we provide it to the survivors in the US. You’ve had time to prepare. The rest of us have not.”

William can tell that Rodney wants to argue with her, so he cuts him off with an outstretched hand and a look that says, I’ve got this.

“We understand completely,” William says. “Thank you for sharing this information. Let’s schedule another call next week. I would like to keep updated on your progress.”

“Of course,” Janice says with a sniff. “Goodbye.”

“Goodbye.” William hangs up and turns to Rodney. “That’s amazing news. I can’t believe they were able to develop a vaccine in such a short period of time.”

“It doesn’t make any sense,” says Rodney, rubbing his scruffy chin. “We’re not getting the full story. Our most brilliant microbiologists have been working for over five years and made no progress. Meanwhile their nuclear physicist develops a vaccine in a matter of weeks? They’re hiding something.”

“I agree, but my main concern right now is the survivors in North and South America. I don’t want them to suffer because of our government’s poor choices.” Because of my mistakes, William thinks. Instead he continues, “We need to get them a vaccine soon, before temperatures start to warm up. Every day we delay, more people will die.”

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