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Christine DeSmet, mystery author and screenwriter, Master Class writing instructor, University of Wisconsin-Madison Continuing Studies
“This fast-paced, smart, witty, and tautly written thriller explodes with an international setting and a great cast of characters including the unlikely hero-a young university bovine virus researcher in St. Paul, Minnesota. The author gives us high stakes with incredible details, creating an authentic and fascinating look inside university labs and politics as well as a jihadist plot that takes our hero around the globe to Cairo and back. Gary Jones is a great new voice on the thriller novel scene. [ Stolen Virus*] is a highly recommended read.”
*The title of the book was recently changed after initial release to "stolen Virus"
Rusty Clark (reviewer) May 6, 2016
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Full Text: "He read the cell phone instructions from cover to cover--possibly the first male ever to do so." Can a terrorist plot to infect schools, airports and shopping malls be both scientifically accurate and laugh out loud funny? In a word, damn right. This clever book puts the fate of the world in the hands of a couple of PhDs. Jason is the one in the t-shirt and cut-offs; the villain wears Prada. A grad student, recently arrived from Hong Kong, causes a SARS mutation to break out of the animal lab. "Diseases carried by wild animals, such as Ebola, Marburg virus, SARS, and West Nile virus, are often more virulent when they infect people than they were in the original host. Any of those diseases can become potential pandemics." When ten vials of the infectious material go missing the story follows the abrasively smug and startlingly inept Ahmed through a travelogue of Arab countries, painting vivid word pictures. "Hard boiled eggs were purchased from urchins at the side of the road," while the scents of "garlic, fenugreek, cardamom, ginger, roast chicken and lamb" fill the steamy air. The descriptions of "blowing refuse, mud, and stinking hovels" in the world's richest oil countries are spot-on. Hot Zone meets [Stolen Virus]* in this smile-worthy new book from Gary F. Jones. I'm giving it five stars for the hitting two of my sweet-spots: epidemics and literary lunacy. I received this book in exchange for an honest review.
Jean Lowery (Librarian) March 31, 2016
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Full Text: So many nights the national news opens with horrific acts of Jihad being committed all over the world. Here is a tale of Jihad that would never make the news. The acts of the Jihadists and those of their pursuers are never publicized or made public. The reader is given both sides of the story, some chapters are devoted to the tale of the Jihadist and some to the story of those tracking them down. Fans of Robin Cook will like this medical mystery novel.
E Vikander (Reviewer) April 4, 2016
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Full Text: Jason and Ann are graduate students experimenting with a bovine virus. An accident contaminates their samples, which are stolen by the Jerk and sold to Jihadists. It took me a while to warm up to this satire. I found it to be clever with a peppering of waggish bon mots, "... he read the cell phone instructions from cover to cover--possibly the first male to ever do so." If you've ever been a graduate student you will especially appreciate this comedy of errors.
Gayle Surrette (reviewer) May 4, 2016
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
. . . The plot is twisty but believable, especially if you have experience in academia. The characters are realistic enough to walk off the page -- some more than others I'll admit -- but believable none the less.
I admit I had low expectations starting this book but after just a few chapters I was hooked. Entertaining to read, and I now know more about BCV and veterinary procedures and issues than I ever expected. How can you beat a book that entertains and educates (though I'll leave the international intrigue as mostly a trope rather than truthful)."
U. of Minnesota, St. Paul Campus, 7:00 p.m., Monday, March 11, 2004
Jason passed his ID badge under the card reader on the wall of the Isolation Building. He listened for the lock to click, opened the door, and motioned to his companion. They walked down a short hallway to the men’s locker room and took off their coats. Tall and lanky, Jason swept his shirt and sweat shirt over his unruly auburn hair and down his arms in a single motion. He hung them in a locker and turned to Joe. Shorter, stockier, and Chinese, Joe was already down to his briefs and socks. He was shivering and rubbing his arms with his hands.
The locker room was 70° F.
Jason glanced at Joe’s lightweight shirt and jacket hanging in the locker. “Don’t you feel well, Joe?”
“I okay. Still tired, still jet-lag,” Joe said.
The shower was both shower and passageway, with clean towels and clothing on the far side. Joe showered through and dressed in scrubs, followed by Jason. “What was the temperature when you left Hong Kong?” Jason asked, as they donned sterile, white coveralls over their scrubs.
“Four days ago? It was about 18° C,” Joe answered. “Hong Kong rarely gets below 15° C in March, even at night.”
Jason pointed toward a rack of tall rubber boots. “Find your size. It’s printed on the bottom. Sterile boot covers are in the cabinet to your right.” He thought a moment, converting Centigrade to Fahrenheit. “18° C would be about 64° F and 15° C is close to 58° F, right?”
“Yes. Safety glasses?”
“They’re in a box on the next shelf up, next to the gloves and face masks. Might as well grab those, too. Did anyone tell you about Minnesota weather?”
Joe paused. “The graduate school sent brochures. Paperwork, packing—I haven’t read them yet.”
The scuffling of their plastic boot covers on the floor was the only sound as they walked together down the brightly lit central hallway. The hallway was spotless; its cream-colored concrete floor and walls smelled faintly of disinfectant. Called the “clean hallway,” nothing that was contaminated was allowed to enter it.
They stopped in front of a small window and watched five black and white, neonatal calves in the room on the other side of the wall. All had been inoculated with bovine coronavirus, or BCV. Three of the calves were indignantly bawling to be fed. The other two had a mild diarrhea from the virus and less energy.
“Minnesota is a lot colder than Hong Kong,” Jason said. “I have an extra sweatshirt and coat in my car. You can use them tonight, after we finish work here. I’ll take you shopping for warmer clothing tomorrow night.”
Joe thanked him and volunteered to feed and examine the calves in the room they were observing, and Jason moved on to do the same for the calves in the next room. There was perspiration on Joe’s forehead, but Jason shrugged it off. The disposable coveralls were hot; the fabric they were made of didn’t breathe.
Jason put nipple bottles full of warm milk out for the calves in the next room.
These calves hadn’t been inoculated with BCV, and all of them greedily set to work on the bottles, their fuzzy little tails twitching back and forth with pleasure. Jason completed his work and recorded his observations in a three ring binder labeled. That done, he removed his coveralls, gloves and boot covers, put them in a medical waste barrel and exited the calf room to the “dirty hallway.”
This hallway was identical to the clean hallway except for flat pans filled with bright yellow disinfectant sitting on the floor next to each door. Jason stepped into the nearest pan, scrubbed his boots with a long-handled brush, and waited for Joe to exit the first room.
Several minutes passed with no sign of Joe. Concerned, Jason showered, dressed as before and took the clean hallway to the first calf room.
Joe was in the center of the calf pen standing over a large drain in the floor. As he fiddled with the zipper of his coveralls with one hand, he held a hose in the other and washed down the floor. “You don’t have to do that, tonight,” Jason said. “We only clean pen floors during the day.”
Joe kept on working. “No problem. Almost done,” and finished hosing the brown, liquid feces down the drain.
Neatnick, thought Jason, and helped him record the calves with diarrhea.
They showered, dressed and left the building. Jason found the extra sweatshirt and jacket in his car, handed them to Joe, and gave him a ride back to his apartment. It was only a ten minute drive, but Joe had to stop at a gas station because of diarrhea.
Exhausted after a fourteen-hour work day, Jason crawled into bed in his apartment. Sleep remained elusive. In the dream-world between waking and sleeping, his mind repeatedly played the scene of Joe hosing down the floor in the animal room. Something in that room had been wrong, very wrong, but he couldn’t identify it.
North St. Paul, 7:30 a.m., Tuesday, March 12, 2004
Jason’s apprehension increased the next morning when Joe wasn’t waiting outside his apartment for a ride to the university. Impatient, Jason honked his horn a couple of times and waited several minutes. He swore, parked his car and looked for Joe’s name on the intercom box at the entrance. He pushed the button marked “Zedong Xue” repeatedly. There was no response.
Jason stood by the apartment complex door and waited until a co-ed exited the building, caught the door before it closed, and ran up two flights of stairs and pounded on Joe’s door. Again, there was no response.
He looked at his watch, pulled out his cell phone, and called his graduate adviser, Paul Schmidt. “Paul, there’s something wrong with Joe. He hasn’t been wearing clothing appropriate for our weather, he had diarrhea and chills last night, and he didn’t show up for a ride to work when I stopped by his apartment this morning. I managed to get into the building, but he didn’t answer when I knocked on his door. I’m teaching an early lab and have to get moving. Could you find out if he’s sick or got a ride from someone else?”
Jason stopped at Paul’s office when he arrived at the University. “Were you able to reach Joe?
Paul, gray-haired, lean and always rumpled had a phone to his ear. He looked up and covered the mouthpiece with his hand. “I have him on the phone now, but he sounds delirious. He’s babbling in Mandarin. I’m going to call an ambulance for him.”
Jason checked his watch. “I have to get to the lab,” he said. “I’ll check back with you after class.”
Paul dismissed Jason with a nod and tried talking to Joe. “Joe, unlock … unlock your door and go to bed. I’m calling an ambulance for you.”
Paul hung up and called the University Hospital. “This is Professor Paul Schmidt on the St. Paul campus. A recent arrival from Hong Kong, a Chinese graduate student, is sick. I just talked to him on the phone. He sounded as though he can barely breathe. He’s coughing and seems to be delirious. Can I have an ambulance pick him up at his apartment?”
There was a prolonged pause before Paul was given an answer. “I’ll transfer you to an infectious disease specialist.”
It was several minutes before the specialist answered. “This is Dr. Hatfield. You said there is a graduate student from Hong Kong with severe respiratory signs?”
“Yes. He flew in from Hong Kong five days ago. I thought—”
“Oh, my God! Five days? From Hong Kong?”
“Holy shit. What imbecile cleared his visa?”
“I thought I’d better give you a heads up on this before you send an ambulance.”
“Thanks. We appreciate the warning.” Paul heard muffled orders barked, as though the doctor had his hand over the mouthpiece.
Paul read Joe’s address when the doctor requested it. “I can meet you there,” he added.
“That might help. We’ll bring an extra hazmat suit for you. Don’t even think of getting near him until my people are there.”
St. Paul Campus, 8:00 a.m. Thursday, March 15, 2004
Paul took Jason aside at the back of the auditorium. “Ready to give your first lecture?”
Jason shrugged. “Guess I’ll find out soon.”
“You shouldn’t have any trouble. It would be best if you don’t mention your calf study, Joe, or SARS in this lecture. Understood?”
Jason looked puzzled. “Okay, but why?”
“The Dean called me this morning.” Paul glanced at the students filing into the lecture hall. “We’ll talk about it later. Too many ears here.”
Jason nodded, walked to the front of the lecture hall and stepped to the podium. A bell rang and the clatter and chatter of the junior veterinary class died down.
Jason turned the microphone on. “Good morning. Many of you know me from lab classes. For any who haven’t met me, I’m Dr. Jason Mitchell, a graduate student in virology. Professor Schmidt asked me to give today’s lecture on bovine coronavirus, or BCV. I’ll also answer questions you may have about next week’s exam.”
Jason talked for 35 minutes about BCV and the diarrheal diseases it caused in cattle. As he reached his last Power Point slide, he asked, “Are there any questions on today’s lecture?”
One of the students planning on specializing in treating beef cattle asked, “Does BCV cause respiratory disease in cattle?”
“There was a published study that indicated that BCV can cause pneumonia. Several attempts to repeat the study failed. Dr. Ann Hartman and I recently completed a study ….” Oops, not supposed to go there. “We, ah, we haven’t tabulated the data yet. BCV and its putative association with respiratory disease will not be on next week’s exam. For your future practice, Professor Schmidt likes to remind students that a virus that mutates as rapidly as BCV may give us a nasty surprise some day.”
A woman sitting in the back among students who had no intention of ever looking at cows again put down her crossword puzzle. “Dr. Mitchell, was yours the study that put the Chinese graduate student in the hospital? How is he doing?”
Jason almost choked. “Joe, ah … that is, Zedong Xue, whom most of us call ‘Joe,’ was hospitalized with pneumonia. As far as we know, his illness was not related to our calf study. I have not heard how he is doing. Could we get back to topics covered in this—”
A student in the front row interrupted him, something students would never do to a faculty member. “Wasn’t the sick student a recent arrival from China?”
Jason nodded. “Yes, he—”
“Is the SARS epidemic still going on?” another student shouted. “Isn’t that a coronavirus, too?”
Jason fidgeted. Don’t talk about SARS. Yeah, sure. Paul should have told these characters that. “SARS is caused by a coronavirus, but I believe the epidemic is over.”
“What does SARS stand for?” someone asked.
“SARS stands for Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome,” Jason said, “but this class only covers coronaviruses of veterinary interest, not human disease.”
“If the student just arrived from China, do you think he might have SARS? I heard there were over 60 cases of SARS in Canada.”
Jason swallowed hard. “Anything I say would be rank speculation.” And get me into more trouble than I’m in already.
A woman in the front row raised her hand. She’s sitting with the group interested in bovine medicine. Maybe she’ll be safe, Jason thought. He nodded to her and asked if she had a question related to BCV.
“Based on sequencing of the genome, the North American strain of BCV is the closest known relative of the SARS virus. Isn’t it possible that a hybrid BCV and the SARS virus could form if the student had SARS and was exposed to the BCV you used to inoculate the calves?”
Sharp girl. I’ll bet that’s the question the Dean and Paul wanted to avoid. Perspiration on Jason’s forehead formed large beads and threatened to run down his face. He shuffled his notes and took a deep breath before answering. “The two viruses are closely related genetically, but this is not a lecture on SARS. The exam next week will be 30% of your grade. Are there any questions about the test?”
The questions paused. A bell rang and the class was over before the questions could start again. Jason hastily left the podium and lecture hall and took the hallway that slanted downward toward the Veterinary Teaching Hospital. Three women from the class fell into step with him. A tall blond woman on his left asked, “You didn’t answer the question about a potential hybrid virus, but isn’t that a possibility? It would explain the pneumonia we’ve heard your calves developed.”
“Yeah,” a well-built brunette on his right said. “That’s the way they think HIV originated—a chimp that ate monkeys was infected by two RNA monkey viruses. The viruses combined and HIV was born.”
“I don’t want to speculate.” Jason saw salvation. “Excuse me,” he said, and dodged into a men’s room. A moment later the door to the hallway swung open and a lanky Pakistani graduate student came in as Jason stood at a urinal. The Pakistani put his book bag down and headed for a urinal himself.
“Harith, are there three students—women—standing outside in the hallway?” Jason asked. “They might look like they’re waiting for someone.”
“I didn’t notice any, but I’ll take a look. Did you want me to ask one of them to come in and shake it for you?” Harith grinned. “If they are there, do you have a preference? I don’t think I will ever understand American mating habits.”
"Very funny. Please, just check for me, will you? I got sucked into saying things I shouldn’t have when I took questions after my lecture. They followed me down the hall, peppering me with questions.”
Harith chuckled and walked back to the door. “You are in luck. The hallway is empty.”
Harith bellied up to a urinal as Jason went to the sink and washed his hands. “Jason, my friend, sometime you’ll have to share your secrets with me. How do you get into situations like this? That is one of the few things I liked about a socially conservative country like Pakistan—nobody ever gets into the troubles you do. We wouldn’t even be able to imagine them. I could support myself as a stand-up comic at home, just telling stories about you.”
Jason groaned. “Give me a break, Harith. This isn’t funny.”
“Your first lecture must have gone well. I heard a couple of the students chattering about it.”
“They were interested in all the wrong things.” Jason opened the men’s room door a crack and peeked into the hall. It was still empty. “Thanks, Harith. Catch you later,” and he left for his office.
Jason unlocked the door to his tiny office and barely had time to drop his notes and books on his desk when his office-mate Mark walked in and told him Paul wanted to see him.
Jason cringed. This can’t be good.
“You must have given a hell of a lecture,” Mark said. “I walked by a group of students who were talking about it. Even the Dean seemed interested.”
“The Dean? Aw, fuck!” Elbows on his desk, Jason held his head in his hands.
“Yeah. The Dean was walking by in the opposite direction when I passed some vet students hanging around a vending machine. I saw him stop when one of the students said something about SARS. He stood in a doorway and eavesdropped on them.”
“I’ll be lucky if I’m not tossed out of school.”
“Why? Most of us can’t keep half the class awake for lectures in bovine medicine, but you had them talking about it in the hallways.”
“Paul told me not to discuss my last study, Joe, or SARS in my lecture. Those were the only things the class wanted to talk about when I asked for questions. They even nailed me on it in the hallway after the lecture. I had to hide in the men’s room to stop the questions.”
Jason slumped in his chair. He grabbed a virology text book and tried to read, but couldn’t concentrate. Closing the book, he shoved his chair back and stood. “Guess I better talk to Paul and get it over with. I’d rather talk to him than the Dean.” He paused at the door and turned to Mark. “Say, don’t tell anybody what I mentioned about Paul’s instructions.”
“Don’t worry. I won’t say a word.”
Jason smacked himself in the forehead as he walked to the other end of the hall and Paul’s office. Mark is the worst damned gossip in microbiology. Every grad student in the department will be talking about Paul’s instructions by noon. Why can’t I learn to keep my mouth shut?
Paul’s office was in a second-floor corner of the old, brick PathoBiology building. The office, with ten-foot ceilings and windows on two walls, was large compared to most. Rank and years of tenure had their rewards. The office door was open and Paul was sitting at his desk. He waived Jason in. “Close the door behind you, please.”
That doesn’t sound good. Jason closed the door and took a chair across the desk from Paul.
Paul looked over his reading glasses at Jason. “What in heaven’s name did you say about SARS and your study? A couple students stopped me in the hall to ask if it’s true that Joe died of SARS and you think he gave it to the calves. The Dean called me to say he’d heard even wilder stories about a mutant super virus.”
Jason turned pale and told Paul about the questions and theories the students proposed. “I didn’t make any statements, other than to say we do not know.”
“I thought it was something like that,” Paul said. “Don’t worry about your lecture today. I’ll tell the Dean what happened.”
“How is Joe doing?”
“He’s still in isolation. The hospital wouldn’t give me any information, and Joe isn’t in shape to take phone calls. Scuttlebutt has it that investigators for the Center for Disease Control will visit us tomorrow.”
“The CDC? What should we expect from them?” Jason asked.
Paul shrugged. “I’m not sure. We’ve never had anything like this happen before.” Paul shifted in his chair. “Answer their questions, but for God’s sake, do not speculate and do not volunteer information.” Paul tapped a pencil on his desk for emphasis. “Stick to the facts. The people who should be nervous are the ones who allowed a sick kid to enter the US from Hong Kong shortly after a SARS epidemic—an epidemic that started in Hong Kong, for Christ’s sake.”
“Do you think they’ve heard about our study results?” Jason asked.
“If not, I’m sure they’ll ask. It was the CDC that identified BCV as a close relative of SARS.” Paul leaned back in his chair. “Unless there’s something you haven’t told me, there is no evidence Joe’s illness was related to your study.”
“No evidence yet, at least,” Jason said. “Joe had diarrhea, chills, and was sweating the last night we did the chores for the calves.”
Paul looked at Jason warily. “And?”
“I left the isolation room Joe was working in for a few minutes. There were dark brown, fluid feces on the floor near the drain when I returned.”
Paul sat up in his chair with a jerk. “Dark brown? Could the color have come from blood in the feces?”
“No. The feces were brown, obviously not from milk-fed calves. It would have taken Joe several minutes to get out of his contaminated clothing and get to a toilet from that room. I think he took an emergency dump in the calf pen. That’s what I would have done, if I’d been in his shoes.”
“If Joe had diarrhea in the calf pen, then the calves were exposed to whatever disease he has and he was exposed to BCV. That complicates things.”
“Yeah. We finally produced a fatal pneumonia in calves with BCV, but if Joe has SARS, we could have had a BCV-SARS hybrid virus in the study. That would explain the respiratory disease the calves had.”
Paul cradled his chin in one hand. “God, I hope not. If there was a hybrid virus and it infected Joe, the CDC and FBI will assume it’s a potential biological weapon.” Paul took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “You won’t believe how complex our lives will get, if that happens. You’d better put isolating and sequencing the virus at the top of your priorities. Order whatever molecular kits you need to speed your work up.”
Jason looked surprised. “Those kits are expensive. Do we have money left in our budget to cover that?”
“Money is no longer an issue. The Dean will find whatever money you need to get answers as quickly as you can. All lab work with those samples and the virus must be done as though you’re working with a human pathogen or a recombinant organism. Everything exposed to the samples must be autoclaved, incinerated, or disinfected by an approved protocol.”
Jason stood to leave. “Understood. I’d better get busy.”
“By the way, the Dean wants an inventory of samples from the study and new padlocks on all the freezers you and Ann used to store your samples. I asked Ann to take care of it this morning. Check with her. She may need some help.”