Pandemic by Robin Cook opened my eyes to the dark side of the biotech world. Protagonist Dr. Jack Stapleton, a New York City medical examiner, fears an influenza virus is the cause of a sudden death on the subway of a young woman. He is wrong about the cause of death. But his instincts are on target.
Stapleton is married to his boss, Dr. Laurie Montgomery. There is quite a bit of tension in their relationship. Both at home and at the office, tempers flare. Jack begins to shut his wife out. In the end this puts his life in jeopardy.
At the center of the plot is a young heart transplant patient. The reader watches her race along the subway platform in order to catch a train. She makes it. Her heart beat returns to normal. Then death strikes. The first symptom is a chill followed by breathing difficulties. She dies before reaching her destination.
The autopsy reveals a heart transplant, with the heart in fantastic shape. But the lungs are filled with pus. Stapleton hypothesizes death by virus, but pathology tests are inconclusive. To make things worse, the patient is a Jane Doe. Stapleton, unwilling to face problems on the home front, buries his troubles in his quest to identify both the woman and her cause of death.
This was the first Robin Cook novel I had read, so all the characters were new to me. But to existing fans there are both recurring and fresh faces in the story. For a new reader, the returning characters were not as richly developed as the newbies. Only the stress of living with a special needs child defines the relationship of Stapleton and Montgomery.
The acronym CRISPR stands for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats. Cas9 is a protein. A better explanation of this genetic breakthrough than I can give can be found in this video from University of California-Berkeley
Cook uses the novel Pandemic to introduce the promises of CRISPR/Cas9 as well as the serious consequences of the misuse of technology. The possibilities remain to be seen. But, birth defects such as Cystic Fibrosis and Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy are among the targets for this technology.
I found it unsurprising that a billionaire capitalist was the villain of the story. Nor was I surprised that the communist leaning millennial son saves the day for both Stapleton and the world. Yet, the virus was concocted by the son. Definitely some mixed message in this book.
Cook even throws in some comments from the son of how divisive America is as compared to a more unified younger Chinese population:
In dialogue, the young man states: “We Chinese university-age generation are all on the same page, whether we are in school in Wuhan, or Canberra, or Paris, or Boston. We are of the same mind-set to truly make China great again, pardon the hackneyed phrase. Whereas here in the USA there is depressing divisiveness and a kind of anti-immigrant neotribalism that is getting progressively worse, in China we millennials are coming together.” (Cook, 2018, page 372)
My economic background understands mixed economies. Capitalist societies have some socialism within the market. The same holds true for the other “isms.” I tend to cringe when I read praise for Communism and Socialism. But we have a generation raised after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The fears of yesterday disappear as time marches forward.
Pandemic is worth reading. Cook brings attention to a rapidly changing world. Yet, pausing to think about the consequences of the change has merit. Let me know what you think of this novel.
For those of you interested in learning more about gene therapy the following website is informative: