Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Nirvana in the Laboratory: PAKISTAN, FEBRUARY 1970

Lives of great men all remind us 
We can make our lives sublime 
And departing leave behind us 
Footprints on the sands of time.
A Psalm of Life,

PAKISTAN: A LAND BETWEEN East and West, where the Eurasian and Indian plates collide: the Indus valley, flanked to the west by the Baluchistan plateau and to the north by the foothills of the Himalayas.

Historians may argue over whether great men really do shape history or merely ride its currents. Yet, several great men had clearly left footprints on the sands of time of this landscape. Sometime before 400 BCE, Siddhartha Gautama, established a new religion, Buddhism, which rapidly permeated the region.

In the third century BCE, the Macedonian general, Alexander the Great, swept in from the West, ushering in a new era of Indo-Greek civilization. To the East, the Indian emperor Ashoka, made Buddhism the state religion of a multi-ethnic empire. The resulting fusion of Greek sculpture with Buddhist religious art culminated in the now-familiar statues of the Buddha scattered across the Southern and Eastern Asia. In what is now central Afghanistan, monumental standing Buddhas carved into a cliff face stood for nearly fifteen centuries, before they were destroyed in a fit of intolerance by the Taliban. Buddhism itself lasted a thousand years in Pakistan before, in the eight century of the common era, the region fell under the influence of another great man, Muḥammad ibn ‘Abd Allah, and another religion, Islam.


IN 1970, THE SMALLPOX eradication campaign was in full swing, but there were still thousands of cases every year in Pakistan. For a dumb virus, the variola major virus, the cause of the more lethal form of smallpox, was proving surprisingly tenacious. Surviving for thousands of years here, this virus had become a microcosm of Buddhism, caught up in an endless cycle of reincarnation, jumping every few weeks from one human body to the next.

But the virus evolved. Every infection represented a lineage that had completed the cycle of reincarnation thousands of times—transmitted endlessly from Buddhist to Buddhist, from Buddhist to Muslim and then from Muslim to Muslim. In recent years, a new lineage had emerged, producing a slightly different profile of proteins and behaving differently when grown in the laboratory. It might even have been a little more virulent. It was to spread as far south as Vellore in India and was to track through the Middle East before jumping into Yugoslavia, deep within Europe.

In February 1970, two samples of the new lineage were taken from patients in Pakistan, one from a three-year old boy called Abid (who, if alive, would now be in his forties), the other from an eighteen-year old man called Taj (who, if alive, would now be in his sixties). Each sample was packed full of variola major poxviruses: a million virus particles or more.

Freighted by air, these representatives of what we might call the "Abid dynasty", ascended high into the stratosphere. The viral pilgrims migrated northward from Pakistan into the heart of the Soviet Union. There, they joined an elite set of reference strains, sent to research centres around the world. Within a few years, the Abid lineage had colonised laboratories in three continents, including the laboratory of Professor Keith Dumbell at St. Mary's Hospital Medical School in London, On 26th May 1978, the Abid lineage made the hundred-mile journey from London to Birmingham.


FREED FROM THE ENDLESS CYCLES of host-to-host transmission—from the samsara of entry, infection, and escape from human flesh—the Abid Dynasty had achieved viral enlightenment, nirvana in the laboratory. Whether propagated endlessly in a paradise of laboratory culture or left to sleep frozen or freeze-dried, the virus had become immortal, tamed, other-worldly.

But within twelve weeks of its arrival in Birmingham, there would be a convergence of the twain: virus and victim. The virus was to escape back into the real world, the wild world of human flesh and blood. And when it did, it would call to mind a concept not from Buddhism, but from the newer faith of Islam: YAWM AD-DIN or JUDGMENT DAY.

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