Andromeda Redux?

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration(NASA) launched a satellite called Scoop to sample the contents of space environment and then return to Earth where scientists could examine the samples. The Scoop was supposed to make a number of orbits before NASA brought it down, but a collision with something unknown knocked it off its orbit and it prematurely crashed to earth in a small, remote town in Arizona. Shortly after the spacecraft landed, everyone in the town suddenly died, except for two. The dead who were examined on site were found to have their entire body’s blood coagulated. A virulent microorganism was suspected immediately. NASA alerted the military who sent a team wearing hazmat suits to retrieve the satellite and deliver it to a special top-secret laboratory that had been constructed for such a purpose under the Nevada desert. There, a term of scientists — pre-selected for their expertise — assembled to find out why people died in the town where the satellite landed.

That is the plot of Michael Crichton’s techno-thriller, The Andromeda Strain, first published in 1969. I was prompted to reread the novel by the present Coronavirus/Covid-19 pandemic. Crichton, who died in 2008, wrote numerous novels with plots that concerned science (in its broadest sense) going awry. The most famous might be his Jurassic Park, a tale about biologists using DNA from fossils to clone dinosaurs. Promoters established a theme park zoo on and island off the coast of Costa Rica to display the creatures, with disastrous results when the dinos got out of hand.

The Andromeda results were less dramatic than raging dinosaurs, at least on the surface. The two survivors from the town provided a clue that led to the mechanism of action. One was a sixty-nine year old who treated his chronic stomach ulcer with a bottle of aspirin a day and occasional swig of Sterno, and a newborn infant who was crying its lungs out when found in the doomed town. I won’t spoil the denouement for those who maybe interested in reading the book but haven’t. Actually, two films were made, one big-screen (1971) and one made-for-television several decades later. The first one was mostly faithful to the book.

What was interesting about rereading was Crichton’s depiction of the computer technology compared with what exists today, more than 50 years later, and the biomedical knowledge and other technical aspects of scientific investigation and analysis of that time. Crichton was a graduate of Harvard Medical School, although he never obtained a license to practice, preferring instead as literary career, at which he was exceptionally successful. So his stories are plausible, and make interesting reading. Much of what he describes in Andromeda was fantasy in 1969, but really exists today, especially in the computer/IT world. Some continues to be far-out. Not sure whether a microorganism that acts like the one in Andromeda has ever been found, though all organisms mutate, faster among the biologically simpler ones. No politician today could get away with ordering, or even suggesting, a nuclear explosion to cauterize an infected area. Spoiler: it was contemplated by as a means of controlling a microorganism in the story, but did not happen.

Relating the Andromeda story to today’s pandemic, there will be a solution and eventually a prophylactic against Covid-19. But regardless of its virulence, the immediate response should not be akin to the nuclear option in Crichton’s story. His fictional president and other characters wisely decided against it. And as it turned out, under the fictional scenario it would have made the situation much worse. That might be a present day lesson. Shutting down the country is the nuclear option and will be worse than the disease.

On another note, given the present predicament, it is apropos that today is the 65th Anniversary of FDA approval of the Salk vaccine for polio. That, and the later Sabin vaccine eliminated what had been a much feared disease threat.

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