Today it’s my great pleasure to hand over the blog to Amy Rogers who has a fabulous guest post on the origins of her new novel, The Han Agent, which is released tomorrow, 5th September. Over to you Amy.
Thanks for the welcome, Jen! When I taught microbiology, I was surrounded by story ideas, and I was inspired to start writing science-themed thriller novels in the style of Michael Crichton and Robin Cook. My third release The Han Agent is about a Japanese pharmaceutical company with a history of war crimes that hires a Japanese-American scientist after she is expelled from a university for manipulating the DNA of a flu virus.
As with all my novels, science and history in The Han Agent are based in reality. Here are some of the topics important to the book.
Influenza virus and the research ban
The influenza virus, or flu, is one of the two deadliest viruses in human history—and we’ve eradicated the other one, smallpox. Why can’t we get rid of flu? The virus keeps changing, and unlike smallpox, influenza isn’t limited to humans. Pigs and birds also get the flu. Inside these animal reservoirs, influenza viruses can shuffle their genes and emerge with a fresh disguise that our immune systems don’t recognize. Such an “antigenic shift” causes a global outbreak (a pandemic) which can kill tens or even hundreds of millions of people.
Smaller genetic changes happen in flu viruses on a regular basis. That’s why a new flu vaccine has to be made every year, and why you can get sick from influenza more than once in your life. Scientists are constantly monitoring flu viruses around the world, watching for genetic changes that might herald the birth of a pandemic virus. But how do they know which genetic changes to look for?
In 2011, two groups of scientists performed experiments on what it takes for a bird flu virus to “learn” how to spread through the air from one mammal (ferret) to another. This “gain-of-function” research sparked a global controversy. What if the newly empowered virus escaped the lab? Were these scientists providing a blueprint for a terrorist to create a bioweapon? For sixty days, all work was halted, and the scientists were forbidden to publish their data.
After much discussion and media attention, the papers were published later in 2012. By January 2013 regulatory agencies had put appropriate guidelines in place and the moratorium on gain-of-function studies ended.
But perhaps it should not have…
If you’re interested in influenza, I highly recommend the book Flu: The Story Of The Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused It by Gina Kolata.
Everyone has heard of the Nazi “doctors” and their inhuman medical experimentation. Far fewer know about WWII Japan’s Unit 731, which committed similar atrocities over a much longer period of time in occupied China of the 1930s and 40s. The biggest difference is that the Japanese got away with it. No scientist, physician, or military officer faced an American war crimes trial. In fact, many of the highest-ranking men involved went on to prestigious careers in postwar Japan’s scientific, medical, and political establishment. For a brief but disturbing summary, read Nicholas Kristof’s 1995 article in the New York Times.
If an animal population grows too large, culling is the easiest way to bring down the numbers. Easiest, but slaughter is not an attractive option. Injectable contraceptive vaccines are a nonlethal way to control populations over time. It’s possible to immunize wildlife against the glycoproteins that surround their unfertilized eggs using a “zona pellucida” vaccine. This makes females temporarily unable to conceive. Such vaccines were shown to work in the late 1980s, when tested on the wild horses of Assateague Island National Seashore, a barrier island off the coast of Maryland.
Yasukuni is an important Shinto shrine in Tokyo founded by a Japanese emperor in 1869. In Shinto, such a shrine serves as a resting place for the souls of the dead. This particular shrine is dedicated to 2.4 million souls of people who died serving the emperor in Japan’s wars. While this sounds simple enough, Yasukuni is intensely controversial. In a secret ceremony in 1978, convicted Japanese war criminals were formally enshrined at Yasukuni, giving them an honored status. The shrine is linked to Japan’s ultranationalist far right, and Yasukuni’s associated museum has been accused of historical revisionism because it sanitizes the truth about Japan’s early 20th century aggression and war crimes. When a Japanese prime minister pays an official visit to Yasukuni (some do, some don’t), protests from China and Korea follow.
For an excellent summary of the issues, read or listen to this PRI report: https://www.pri.org/stories/2013-12-26/why-yasukuni-shrine-so-controversial
About the Book
In the 1930s, Japanese scientists committed heinous crimes in their quest for the ultimate biological weapon.
The war ended. Their mission did not.
Eighty years later, Japanese-American scientist Amika Nakamura won’t let rules stand between her and scientific glory. When the ambitious young virologist defies a ban on the genetic manipulation of influenza, she’s expelled from the university. Desperate to save her career, she accepts a position with a pharmaceutical company in Tokyo. Soon after, a visit to a disputed island entangles her in a high-profile geopolitical struggle between Japan and China. Applying her singular expertise with bird flu in a risky experiment may be the only way out. Little does she know that Japanese ultranationalists and a legacy of unpunished war crimes lurk in the shadows, manipulating people, politics, and science.
But DNA doesn’t lie. Amika uncovers a shocking truth: a deadly virus is about to put the “gene” in genocide.
You can purchase a copy of The Han Agent from the following retailers:
About the Author
Amy Rogers, MD, PhD, is a Harvard-educated scientist, novelist, journalist, educator, critic, and publisher who specializes in all things science-y. Her novels Petroplague, Reversion, and The Han Agent use real science and medicine to create plausible, frightening scenarios in the style of Michael Crichton. Formerly a microbiology professor, she is the founder of ScienceThrillers Media publishing company, an Active member of International Thriller Writers, and serves as treasurer for Northern California Publishers and Authors. In addition, she runs the ScienceThrillers.com book review website and writes a monthly science column for Sacramento’s Inside Publications. Learn more at AmyRogers.com.
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