Ed Liu was constantly calling Samantha, but his cell phone calls did not go through. It just said, NOT AVAILABLE. He left multiple voice messages. Texts did not go through either and kept saying, DELIVERY FAILED.
Where the hell is she, he thought. He knew she was rather apprehensive about the new autopsy rotation and mentioned something about Hart Island. He did not even know where that was. He thought it was some autopsy place in the Bronx near her apartment. It had been a long time since he last saw her because he hardly had time and they lived far apart.
He lived in Washington DC, had finished his PhD in infectious diseases in the pandemic division and worked at Abby Laboratory as a scientist focusing on virology. The last time they saw each other was right before Christmas time when he stopped in New York for a few hours before he took off to Ohio to visit his parents. The CDC sent him to Atlanta multiple times during his internship year, and to South Africa once last year to visit their lab for a collaborative research project on the Ebola virus.
This time, he was back at the CDC where several people with expertise in virology gathered to visit Wuhan, China to determine the origin of the coronavirus. He could not believe they had chosen him to represent the US group. His boss, Dr. Allen, trusted Ed more than himself to represent Abby and to understand the virology, and often said Ed “is the guru of viruses.” Ed had extensive expertise in viruses and was widely recognized for his intelligence. Dr. Allen trusted Ed exclusively, and made him the Associate Research Director only after a few years. Dr. Allen was the company CEO who dealt with the financial and overall control of Abby Laboratory and did not have the technical and scientific knowledge as Ed.
There would be ten people going to China. The World Health Organization (WHO) went to Wuhan, China in early January 2020, but they had failed to return fully informed about the magnitude of the contagious nature of the virus.
In fact, it was reported as an epidemic only in the region of Wuhan and was not expected to spread like SARS in 2002, which spread worldwide within a few months and then was quickly contained. Now, the CDC did not trust WHO reports for obvious reasons. COVID-19 was thought to have arisen from a seafood market, perhaps in smuggled pangolins used for both food and medicine.
Another possibility was bats, because these two animals have similar genetic codes as what we find in the coronavirus. Exactly how the virus jumped from a wild animal to other animals or humans remains a mystery. It amazed the CDC group China already had the full genetic code for COVID-19. Their speed in research was impressive. However, there was a rumor now that the virus may not have originated from the seafood market.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) lab is located just three miles away from the seafood market. A scientist from the WIV said that COVID-19 was most likely spread from a bat since its genetic makeup is 96% identical to the sequence of COVID-19.
There was speculation that patient zero in Wuhan did not contract the virus from the seafood market, but from within the lab led by a local scientist who also worked on bats at the Wuhan Municipal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Chinese government withdrew this from newspapers as speculation and stated that there was no evidence the virus came from laboratories in Wuhan. They emphatically denied any link to the institute and proclaimed that they have a strict regulatory regime and code of conduct for research.
The WHO also supported the Chinese government, stating that COVID-19 did not come from the laboratories in Wuhan. They added that the only reason the Wuhan lab knew so much about the coronavirus was because of Dr. Shei, the Director of the Institute, had studied the topic for most of her life since SARS in 2003.
Ed did not think he was qualified to be there. They chose him to visit Wuhan, China, along with other gifted scientists from all over the US to determine several things; the origin of the virus, its evolution in nature and spillover to humans, and whether it was an accidental or deliberate release from a lab, or a genetic manipulation of a pathogen as a bioweapon. He was excited for the opportunity even though only reason they chose him was because he is Chinese, but he hardly spoke the language. At least he could speak some and communicate the basics.
He was born in Ohio to Chinese parents who immigrated there as scientists. They were both PhDs at Ohio State University and worked in the research laboratories in the medical field. It disappointed them that Ed did not go into medicine, but his younger brothers saved him by becoming medical doctors.
The middle brother was already practicing, and his youngest brother was in residency. His parents always said that Ed was the smartest, tallest, and most handsome of all his siblings. Ed was fit, especially after his ROTC military training, and he maintained his muscular and fit body and postures. Ed was not satisfied with simply learning medical knowledge, but he had to dig deeply with one focus—he preferred to understand viruses that can cause pandemics, devastating the entire globe much more than any human diseases. To develop a vaccine against a specific virus could be more powerful and heroic than what any medical doctor could achieve, in his opinion. Ed was proud of his accomplishments and confident in his own ability to save the world when the time came to show his heroism. His parents had an innate bias that Ed should be a medical doctor or lawyer, but Ed knew a PhD can discover cures for diseases more than medical doctors. Ed did not want to argue against his parents for he was an obedient and honorable son who would never lecture his parents.
They were not too happy about Ed seeing Samantha for many years. They wanted their firstborn male child to carry out their names and maintain their Chinese heritage by marrying a Chinese girl. Also, they were devout Buddhists and Samantha and her family were Christians.
Ed was a source of disappointment from his parent’s perspectives. His parents expected too much of Ed, maybe because he was a first-born son. No woman was good enough for Ed because he was “so smart, tall, physically fit, stunningly handsome, kind and gentle” as his parents always put it. Deep down, Ed was confident his parents accepted him. Perhaps his parents worried most about his future income as a scientist, just like themselves, who were less than medical doctors.
Ed thought going back to Wuhan, China as a virologist expert would make them even more proud. They indeed were immensely proud and joked with him over the phone about getting a cute, young Chinese wife while he was visiting China.
They expected the trip to be at least one week, depending on the progress of their findings. They were all staying at the same hotel near the Wuhan lab. Wuhan still had a strict lockdown and curfew orders from the government in place. So, unfortunately, a tour was not on their agenda. Also, the Chinese government was reluctant of their visit to the WIV, and Ed was not sure how they would treat a bunch of US scientists. After all, the WHO scientists came, checked and approved of all the findings from the WIV.
They were all expected to fly to China late tomorrow evening, and it frustrated Ed that Samantha was unreachable. He did not have much more time to call her since there were a lot of meetings scheduled before their departure.