The Smiling Virologist

In  by August 11, 2023

SAMUEL BURNS is a tall, thin man who seems nervous in front of the cameras. He fiddles with the wire linking the mic that is clipped onto his shirt, and one foot taps quietly but frantically on the floor as he talks.

SAMUEL: I suppose you want to talk about what happened to Adam Lewinsky, how he became the Smiling Virologist. I just want to say, though, for the record, I don’t like that moniker. It makes him sound like the Joker, or something. To me, he’s just Adam. And besides, history might be kind to him. Maybe it’ll turn out that he was right. Maybe ACID will turn out to be the pandemic that saved us.

I met him in the late thirties, my late thirties, in fact, when I started a new job at his lab. After COVID there was a lot of new funding for virology and vaccinology, a lot of positions, but a lot of competition, too. There was a real sense of guardianship in working on preventing the next pandemic.

Adam had done his doctorate on animals that provoked unusual nervous responses in humans. Carukia barnesi was one of his favourites. It was a jellyfish whose sting could bring on a sense of impending doom, and cause the victim to feel certain that they were going to die. He’d been stung while handling one, once, and his eyes had glazed over while he tried and failed to describe the sense of overwhelming existential dread. Far more excruciating than the actual pain.

Samuel shudders and crosses his arms.

He talked about bufo toads, too, that caused hallucinogenic reactions if eaten or licked. A caterpillar whose toxins caused brain haemorrhages. A subspecies of wandering spider whose venom made you permanently impotent, if you didn’t die of asphyxiation in the hours following the bite.

I’m probably building a picture of some wispy-haired mad scientist. That’s not right—kooky is probably the word. Besides, he was bald. Adam was a great guy. As much as he loved to wax on about his own research and projects, about the potential uses of animal by-products in making the next vaccines, he’d always find time to help me, and always volunteered as a sounding board to bounce ideas off of. Adam was happy, and dedicated to his work. The Green Death changed that.

• • •

In archive footage, ADAM LEWINSKY is somber, pale, and looks like he hasn’t slept properly in years. The buttons on his shirt are misaligned; one buttonhole missed on the left side, the spare fabric buckling out on the right. His fingernails are chewed and ragged.

ADAM: It was our worst nightmare. Something with the R rate of measles, multiple transmission methods, and the mortality rate of Ebola. Our most conservative models, even with the entire world put back on lockdown, put the potential deaths at over a billion within two years. It would have made COVID look like a Sunday drive. But we were lucky, or blessed, or something else. Just like what happened with Omicron, it mutated into a far less lethal but much more transmissible form, and burned itself out in a year. Half the world was infected and only a hundred million died. God. Only.

Lewinsky shakes his head.

I didn’t believe it when I heard it, either, that it had been engineered. That someone had made it on purpose. They never caught the guy, but his manifesto said that he was trying to cull the global population. “For environmental reasons.” God. [Expletive] maniac. We’re handling the climate crisis about as well as a planet full of self-serving primates can do, which is to say, not at all, but there had to be a better way than that. There had to be.

• • •

Someone has brought SAMUEL BURNS a cup of coffee and he sits back, taking a sip. The mug scrapes against the mic pinned to his shirt and he winces at the sound, putting the mug down on a little table next to his chair.

Sorry. As I was saying, the Green Death changed him. Virologists had had our moment in the spotlight, dealing with COVID and the minor pandemics that came after it. And although we fixed the Green Death, too, it was one of us that started it in the first place. Whoever it was. We were under a lot more scrutiny after that, and a lot more pressure.

Adam retreated into his work, but he still found time to talk to me. He was growing increasingly [expletive] about the climate crisis, what with the wildfires in northern Europe and Canada, and what happened with the Netherlands and the Union of Pacific Nations. He came close to saying the guy who’d come up with the Green Death had a point, but I knew that’s not what he meant. He just wanted to find a vaccine for the planet, the same way we did for all the newest diseases.

I suppose you know where this is going.

• • •

ELLEN KENNEDY’s suit is almost as formal as her hair is informal, a shock of bright dyed blue that matches her tie and earrings. She holds herself in a way that only professional newsreaders and broadcasters can.

ELLEN: As the first reports came in, I was scared, reading them out on the air. It seemed so familiar, and so soon after the Green Death. Every time there was a new case of a mystery illness, you had to ask yourself if this was the big one. This time, a whole city was infected with some new unidentified disease, and thousands upon thousands of people were hospitalized. Debilitating nausea, rabid discomfort, painful rashes, lucid delusions of impending doom. Nurses on duty were saying they’d not seen suffering like it outside of the cancer wards. It started popping up all across the globe, despite the strictest quarantines in recorded history, and I was terrified.

But after a few days of misery the symptoms seemed to clear, and there were virtually no deaths. And it got stranger. People started putting two and two together. Vegetarians and vegans weren’t affected. Nor pescatarians. Neither were people who just ate poultry as their main source of meat. It was beef and pork. People were becoming violently, excruciatingly intolerant to certain meats. We were scrambling for answers, and then Adam Lewinsky made his broadcast.

KENNEDY grimace-smiles.

It turned out, funnily enough, it had already been up on YouTube for weeks. It’s just that Adam only had six followers, to start with, and none of them noticed straightaway. The algorithm hadn’t pushed it to the front.

Cut to footage from partway through LEWINSKY’s video.

ADAM: But of course, it’s unavoidable. Methane from livestock is the number one accelerant of climate change, especially now that the use of fossil fuels and petrol cars have been scaled back. We could slow the runaway effect, maybe to a crawl, if we went fully plant-based. Give a few more generations a chance on this planet. But people just aren’t ready to give up meat, and particularly beef. Livestock takes up nearly 90% of viable agricultural land, and the vast majority of that is for bovine herds. That land could feed ten times the amount of people if used more efficiently, too. Or just given back to nature. Think of the forests that could grow, all the carbon that could be soaked up!

Cut back to ELLEN KENNEDY.

ELLEN: Look how giddy he is while he’s explaining. I hate the stupid boogeyman name, but you can see where the media got the idea for it. The Smiling Virologist. Every parent, I think, will recognise that look. He’s a child proudly showing you something he’s made.

ADAM: I’d worked with Amblyomma americanum, the lone star tick, in the past. The really interesting thing about americanum is that its bite often triggers a permanent allergy to a certain sugar molecule, alpha-gal. This molecule is present in both the saliva of the tick itself, and also certain meats.

ELLEN: He does look somewhat like a mad scientist here, I will concede.

ADAM: The virus I created had an impossibly high transmission rate, but no symptoms or side effects. In truth, you would never even know you had it … until you ate meat. At that point, you’d suffer a few unpleasant side effects for a few days. Nothing fatal. Just unpleasant.

ELLEN: A few unpleasant side effects. Jesus. I’m a flexitarian, so I was lucky enough to avoid ACID’s effects until they figured out what was triggering them, but my partner had it. He said he wanted to die from the nausea, and there was something in his head telling him the world was going to end. And Lewinsky says there was nothing fatal about ACID? A lot of coroners disagree.

The camera zooms in slightly as ELLEN pauses to gather her thoughts.

And yet, just like that, almost overnight, the entire world was either aggressively allergic to meat, or so scared of the side effects that they didn’t bother with it any more anyway. He’s got a lot of fanboys, don’t get me wrong. But there’s also a lot of very angry people out there who want to speak to him.

ELLEN hesitates, listening to a question off-camera.

Am I? I don’t know. I think it’s too early to say what he’s done. A lot of people have gone through a lot because of what he did. My husband isn’t the same. I’m not sure I am, either.

ELLEN exhales deeply.

And I’d kill for a proper burger.

• • •

SAMUEL BURNS is shifting in his seat, uncomfortable.

Look, I don’t know. People have largely moved to poultry since the outbreak of ACID, and lab-grown meat that doesn’t contain alpha-gal has boomed in popularity. Some people are starting to say that McDonalds tastes like it used to again. We’ve not really seen a rise in vegetarianism or veganism, though. Despite that, even on its own the switch to poultry is a net benefit. I know cows were supposed to be the pollutingest thing left on the planet.

And obviously they aren’t breeding them any more, but what will happen to the last generation, the cows and pigs that are alive now? They’ll probably get ground down into feed for the other animals we can still eat. And what about the farmers?

 I’m not an atmospheric scientist. I think it’s too early to see how far methane levels will really drop, though. We won’t know what Adam has done for a good few years. I just wonder if he’s out there somewhere, waiting to see for himself.

SAMUEL strains to hear a question from off-camera.

No, we’re not working on a cure for ACID. And that’s not a moral or environmental decision. It’s not really killing people, and there are plenty of things that are. We have bigger fish that need frying.

SAMUEL smiles.

And certainly not beef.

• • •

 At the time of broadcast, Adam Lewinsky is still unaccounted for.

Two thousand deaths have been attributed to Alpha-gal Complex Immune Disease (ACID), but these figures are contested by the World Health Organisation.

Since the outbreak, global beef consumption has dropped by 96%. Pork consumption has dropped by 94%.

Relative to pre-ACID levels, annual methane emissions have decreased by 30% and are still falling.

Copyright © 2023 Dan Peacock

Feature image credit:

Depositphotos

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Dan Peacock

Dan Peacock is a sci-fi and fantasy writer from the UK. His short stories have been published or are forthcoming in F&SF, Kaleidotrope, and Etherea, and he is also a first reader for Orion’s Belt. You can find links to all his published stories at danpeacockwriter.com, and he tweets at @DanPeacock92.

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