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startraveller
06-09-2014, 10:41 AM
My WIP is a sort of apocalyptic survival story, and the main cause to this set-back of human progression is a viral pandemic. The reasoning I'm putting behind the pandemic is an ancient burial site being unearthed, and the virus being spread from the remains. As I am not a scientist, I'm unsure of how wrong this may be.

1. Is it possible for a virus or disease to be spread from the remains of a human or other mammal? What sort of contact with the remains would be optimal for infection?

2. How long can said virus/disease last through burial? Would it be capable of living for only several days, months, decades, etc.? Would there be any threat upon opening a casket or tomb of an infected person?

A re-located Curse of the Pharaohs is my backup plan.

ULTRAGOTHA
06-09-2014, 10:50 AM
Connie Willis does something similar, though not as widespread, in Doomsday Book.

Or a virus can escape from a lab, such as smallpox or the Spanish flu, and then mutate.

Actual viri in the world mutate all the time. See MERS right now--30 to 40% death rate.

Bolero
06-09-2014, 01:15 PM
Google anthrax. It survives in spores and is very long lived. There is an island off the UK that was used for testing anthrax which is still off limits (the last I heard).

waylander
06-09-2014, 01:31 PM
When they were excavating for the new Crossrail tunnels in London they found a number of plague pits from the Black Death. There was genuine concern that there might be live plague bacteria around. None was found to my knowledge but that does not preclude the possibility.

MDSchafer
06-09-2014, 04:06 PM
As for your questions, I'm not a scientist, but I have a decent amount of medical training.

1. Something like 60 percent of all viruses that affect humans originate in mammals, so viruses jump species enough that it's scary. As far as what contact is optimal for spread it really depends. With flu viruses it seems that close-contact spreads the disease more than consuming a chicken with bird flu. If the virus is airborne then being in pen or den of animals can be enough to spread the virus. When you're dealing with something like Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy it's different because it's spread by via prion, which is an infectious protein, and God help us if we ever come across a really contagious version of a prion. Mad Cow Disease is spread by eating food contaminated with CNS tissue.

2. Unless there is unusual circumstances viruses typically only live for two months at the most outside of a host under normal circumstances. Most viruses die outside a host within 24 hours. That said, if there is freezing, or maybe even salt packing going on bacteria and viruses can live longer. I read an article a few months ago that said the melting of the permafrost could present problems as at least one ancient virus thawed and became infectious again.

http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-26387276

ChasingRed
06-09-2014, 04:19 PM
Watch the first X-Files movie, Fight The Future.

King Neptune
06-09-2014, 04:23 PM
During the Crimean War, 1854, the British and French were going to set up in what is now Romania and landed their armies near a lovely, uninhabited valley. When they started digging in they also started having people become ill with Plague. The valley had been abandoned centuries earlier because of the Plague, and the bacteria had survived in the soil since then. As was pointed out viruses seldom survive long outside a host, but many bacteria do just fine in the soil.

Plague, Yersinia Pestis, would work well, but you might also consider Typhus or Cholera, either of which live in water when they aren't infecting people. Imagine a beautiful, clear pool of water; it looks delicious, so you drink, and two days later the symptoms begin.

TheNighSwan
06-09-2014, 07:07 PM
Yeah, bacterial spores are much more likely to survive for long period of times than virus. Virus today are associated with more nastiness than bacteria, but as others have said some very nasty diseases of the past are caused by bacteria, such as the plague, cholera, anthrax, typhus or tuberculosis.

ULTRAGOTHA
06-09-2014, 08:48 PM
The OP wants a horrific pandemic that blasts civilization back to subsistence living. That’s a very high mortality rate. I would think most ancient bacterium could be knocked down with penicillin.

Or it could be a bacterium that happens to not respond well to any of our antibiotics; but I’d expect an explanation for that as most of them responded just fine until we misused antibiotics and made resistant strains. (No time to look up Anthrax which a niggle is telling me might be more resistant from the get go?)

Or it could be a bacterium that works so fast antibiotics can’t kill enough of them before they kill the host. That would need to be preceded, I think, by a reasonable period of time where the host is contagious but not experiencing many symptoms. Diseases that kill very quickly don’t generally spread very well.

For a virus or bacterium to work so fast medical personnel are overwhelmed and Disease Control and Prevention people can’t check it, it needs to be very easily transmitted. It would help if there was a longish period where the person was contagious but had no or very mild symptoms. That way they could transfer it to a lot more people before they sought medical attention. That usually means droplets in the air; but can also be by touch. Chicken pox is very contagious and it’s transmitted by touch (blisters, saliva, mucous).

It’s perfectly possible to have a virus that mutates (either naturally or with human help) into a horrific killer and overwhelms the hospitals. The Spanish flu almost did that right after WWI. Everyone is keeping a beady eye on MERS right now. It’s got a 40% or so mortality rate (as of the last data crunching I heard of in Saudi Arabia) and is poised to escape from the region if we’re not careful. It’s been jumping from camels to people for a while but now it looks like it’s mutated enough to jump from people to people.

Avian flu could do the same thing out of its reservoir in China.

Small pox was incredibly deadly to populations with no endemic immunity. Some estimates say it killed 90% or so of the native population in eastern North America even before Plimoth Rock. If it took hold again before mass quantities of vaccine could be manufactured or distributed we’d have a problem. There are probably billions of people my age and younger who never got the vaccine and have absolutely no immunity—not even the endemic immunity the pre-columbian Europeans had. If you choose small pox and move your pandemic even 10 years into the future, you’d have a handful of younger people survive and a whole lot of very much older people who have had the vaccine, making your society rather interesting just after the pandemic burns out.

MDSchafer
06-09-2014, 08:50 PM
Yeah, bacterial spores are much more likely to survive for long period of times than virus. Virus today are associated with more nastiness than bacteria, but as others have said some very nasty diseases of the past are caused by bacteria, such as the plague, cholera, anthrax, typhus or tuberculosis.

Thing is with ancient bacteria odds are our antibiotics will probably be able to knock it down.

melindamusil
06-09-2014, 09:36 PM
I once read a (fiction) book that portrayed the 1918 Spanish Flu virus as re-emerging via corpses in Alaska that had been frozen solid, but were thawing due to global warming. I'm not a medical professional but it seemed believable enough to me.

King Neptune
06-09-2014, 10:14 PM
I once read a (fiction) book that portrayed the 1918 Spanish Flu virus as re-emerging via corpses in Alaska that had been frozen solid, but were thawing due to global warming. I'm not a medical professional but it seemed believable enough to me.

The Spanish Flu, or a variant very close to it - H1N1, has come around a few more times, but hasn't been nearly as deadly. Flu is not persuasive as a massively deadly pandemic.

King Neptune
06-09-2014, 10:16 PM
Thing is with ancient bacteria odds are our antibiotics will probably be able to knock it down.

Probably, but there are strains of bacteria that are naturally to a wide range of antibiotics. There are strains of Y. Pestis in the wild that are very, very resistant, just as one example.

startraveller
06-09-2014, 10:19 PM
Thanks to everyone who's replied!


2. Unless there is unusual circumstances viruses typically only live for two months at the most outside of a host under normal circumstances. Most viruses die outside a host within 24 hours. That said, if there is freezing, or maybe even salt packing going on bacteria and viruses can live longer. I read an article a few months ago that said the melting of the permafrost could present problems as at least one ancient virus thawed and became infectious again.

http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-26387276
Ah, MDSchafer, this may be the article I read and lost! I thought about using a form of Mad Cow, but figured it might be too easy to identify. But, there's currently no cure for it either, so a variation of it may work fine.

The burial ground in my WIP is set in Iceland, which I think would cover the freezing and melting. I would assume, if the freezing hypothesis is right, bringing the disease into a lab or assuming the remains to be safe of any transferable illness could lead to an outbreak if the remains are handled improperly. It could only take a minor slip-up with something previously unstudied?


If you choose small pox and move your pandemic even 10 years into the future, youd have a handful of younger people survive and a whole lot of very much older people who have had the vaccine, making your society rather interesting just after the pandemic burns out.
That is an interesting thought, definitely worth considering.

Hypothetical scenario: a burial ground is uncovered in Iceland after years of ice melting due to weather conditions, scientists find the remains marked with evidence of some sort of disease previously unrecorded in history; the remains are taken to a handful of different labs for analysis, and are found negative of any known disease, this allows a false sense of security in the scientific and medical communities; after further testing the remains are released for public viewing alongside an exhibit on the remains' culture, travelling across countries over the course of a year; after coming in contact with the remains museum workers, scientists, and medical professionals, begin to show symptoms congruent with a known illness and the symptoms are misdiagnosed as treatable; clusters of similar illness pop up across the globe, are misidentified, and the illness eventually mutates/evolves to resist the drugs used to treat it. After the disease is found to be more violent than previously thought, quarantines are put in place for all those who have come in direct contact with the remains as well as communities presenting symptoms.

Would a viral or bacterial disease be better suited for this hypothesis? Is there a viral or bacterial disease that leaves marks on bone?

Approximately how long would it take for a vaccine or treatment to be identified and manufactured if a majority of disease centers have been put out of commission?

I'm relying on a bit of suspended disbelief for this, so it doesn't need to be airtight but believable in the right light.

veinglory
06-09-2014, 10:39 PM
I would +1 the idea that an emerging disease, probably zoonotic, is far more likely to be catastrophic. Old diseases have history so when they break people know how to identify them and respond.

Dead animals are surprisingly non-hazardous for bacteria and viruses as they do not long outlive the host. They are cleaned up mainly to avoid smell and the effects of new bacteria etc colonizing the carcass. Transmission is mainly limited to animals that scavenge the meat.

King Neptune
06-10-2014, 12:18 AM
Decay bacteria usually overwhelm everything else in dead animals.

How ancient a disease do you want? I am mildly surprised that some prehistoric bacteria hasn't been found around any of the mamoths that have been found frozen in Siberia.

At least as good would be a shipment of something that happened to have a previously unknown strain of bacteria in it. The bacteria could be as dangerous as you want, and if people never dealt with it before, then there would be no immunity. The problem would be that the bacteria probably would have no immunity to most antibiotics.

In real terms, exactly the sort of thing that you want probably is out there in the wild, but the odds are that it will not be contagious enough to become a pandemic.

MDSchafer
06-10-2014, 12:55 AM
Your scenario sounds plausible to me in a work of fiction, and better than a lot of the medical dreck that shows up in fiction.

Diseases leaving marks on bones? Yeah, there's a couple. Ostomyelitis is a bacterial infection of the bones. Anyone with any medical training could pick it out on even if they just glanced at the bones of a survivor/victim, it's that apparent in many cases. Measles can result in a condition known as Otosclerosis, which causes abnormal growth of the stapes in the middle ear. The stapes is the smallest bone in the human body and a trained forensic examiner or an experienced doc could spot it when examining a bone, but your average pHd is going to miss it. Also, as I understand it, HIV effects bone resorption and remodeling and can lead to Ostopenia, but I have no idea what this would look like.

Vaccines? This is my biggest frustration with medical fiction. Right now, we are at best eight/nine years away from a vaccine being commercially available to fight HIV. I've been following the career of Dr. Harriet Robinson since 2002, she's been working on what I consider to be the most promising HIV vaccine since the 90's and she still hasn't reached phase III human trails.

You can however work around that with a bacteria if you go with finding a combination of two or more antibiotics. There's a synergistic effect sometimes when two medications are combined to fight a disease. If the right answer was combining two existing products we could see a spike of deaths followed by a quick treatment.

startraveller
06-10-2014, 02:56 AM
How ancient a disease do you want? I am mildly surprised that some prehistoric bacteria hasn't been found around any of the mamoths that have been found frozen in Siberia.

Ideally, Iron Age ancient. I was thinking of having the remains be those of Vikings, seeing as they did quiet a lot of travelling and could have picked up a nasty bug somewhere along the way. Possibly, they make a disappearance a la the Roanoke Colony. A ramped up Chagas (though Chagas isn't terribly old), perhaps?


Measles can result in a condition known as Otosclerosis, which causes abnormal growth of the stapes in the middle ear. The stapes is the smallest bone in the human body and a trained forensic examiner or an experienced doc could spot it when examining a bone, but your average pHd is going to miss it.

Vaccines? This is my biggest frustration with medical fiction. Right now, we are at best eight/nine years away from a vaccine being commercially available to fight HIV. I've been following the career of Dr. Harriet Robinson since 2002, she's been working on what I consider to be the most promising HIV vaccine since the 90's and she still hasn't reached phase III human trails.

You can however work around that with a bacteria if you go with finding a combination of two or more antibiotics. There's a synergistic effect sometimes when two medications are combined to fight a disease. If the right answer was combining two existing products we could see a spike of deaths followed by a quick treatment.

With vaccinations off the table, would inoculation be a valid option in prevention? If the disease were to evolve after initial inoculation, would those treated be at risk of infection of the new strain, or would the previous inoculation lessen the effects in any way?

TheNighSwan
06-10-2014, 04:06 AM
Note however that bacteria, through virus and through their own device, often do a thing called "horizontal gene transfer", where a strain acquires some DNA from another strain, not through inter-reproduction, but simply by physical bits of DNA being transmitted between cells.

This is an important factor because genetically coded antibiotic-resistance can be transmitted this way. So one can imagine an ancient disease reemerging and then acquiring anti-biotic resistant from some related modern but less virulent strain.

MDSchafer
06-10-2014, 04:20 AM
With vaccinations off the table, would inoculation be a valid option in prevention? If the disease were to evolve after initial inoculation, would those treated be at risk of infection of the new strain, or would the previous inoculation lessen the effects in any way?

Without a vaccine what would you use to inoculate someone?

startraveller
06-10-2014, 09:01 AM
Without a vaccine what would you use to inoculate someone?
I may have misunderstood the definitions, and not clearly stated what I think they mean. What I have read about vaccinations (through Google) lead me to believe there is a difference between inoculations and vaccinations- inoculations being the pure strain of a disease, and vaccinations being a weakened version of a strain. What I mean to get at is the primitive(?) use of inoculations seen prior to the coining of the term "vaccination", i.e. introducing a virus via open skin or air passage rather than injection. The inoculation using physical materials of the disease, rather than a lab manufactured strain for injection.

King Neptune
06-10-2014, 04:50 PM
Ideally, Iron Age ancient. I was thinking of having the remains be those of Vikings, seeing as they did quiet a lot of travelling and could have picked up a nasty bug somewhere along the way. Possibly, they make a disappearance a la the Roanoke Colony. A ramped up Chagas (though Chagas isn't terribly old), perhaps?

Go with it. There have been areas that became depopulated without leaving any sign of why. It is not unreasonable to claim that some Vikings came upon the last survivors of people on some island, and the Vikings also contracted the disease but made it back to Iceland before they died in an isolated house.


With vaccinations off the table, would inoculation be a valid option in prevention? If the disease were to evolve after initial inoculation, would those treated be at risk of infection of the new strain, or would the previous inoculation lessen the effects in any way?


The earliest vaccinations, that I know of, were pus from smallpox or cowpox pustules. You could have your people try something like that, but it was, and still is, very, very risky. Those inoculations produced relatively mild cases of smallpox, but some people died from the disease that was induced.

You're writing fiction, and you probably have a skilled physician among the characters, so try it and see if it is believable.

wendymarlowe
06-10-2014, 10:43 PM
An idea: what if there were two illnesses contributing? One, extremely virulent but very mild one, which only presents as a slight cold or whatever. This could sweep through most of the population without comment, with some people not even knowing they had it. The antibodies created after you've had that one, though, could render you particularly susceptible to a second, much deadlier bacteria/virus - and that would give you a reason for why a pandemic could kill quickly and yet spread quickly also. The second illness could even be something relatively benign and common - something on the level of the flu suddenly becoming more deadly. Everyone thinks they're fine, we get into flu season, and then BAM, everyone who already had the first one is dying and there's no time to find out why.

MDSchafer
06-11-2014, 03:05 AM
I may have misunderstood the definitions, and not clearly stated what I think they mean. What I have read about vaccinations (through Google) lead me to believe there is a difference between inoculations and vaccinations- inoculations being the pure strain of a disease, and vaccinations being a weakened version of a strain. What I mean to get at is the primitive(?) use of inoculations seen prior to the coining of the term "vaccination", i.e. introducing a virus via open skin or air passage rather than injection. The inoculation using physical materials of the disease, rather than a lab manufactured strain for injection.

Maybe, I don't work on that end of medicine, so I'm really not familiar with how that works.

buirechain
06-11-2014, 07:40 PM
Oh boy, this thread hits on one of my hot buttons. My wife is a microbiologist, I don't have formal training but I've spent a lot of time learning this stuff so I can discuss stuff intelligently with her and her colleagues, and also for fictional purposes. My apologies for what is about to be a long, but hopefully informative post.

My number one rule for writing transmissible diseases: Viruses, bacteria, fungi etc all operate under Natural Selection. That means that when they mutate, the end product is something that spreads better, NOT something that kills better. Generally this means that after the first few rounds of infection levels of sickness and death will go down. Natural selection also means that strange and complicated methods of action are unlikely.

(And rule two, viruses are not really alive, they only replicate in host cells, they're inert and can't even move by themselves when they're outside the host--instead they have to create conditions in the host which leads to the host spreaidng them once they leave the cell)



1. Is it possible for a virus or disease to be spread from the remains of a human or other mammal? What sort of contact with the remains would be optimal for infection?

2. How long can said virus/disease last through burial? Would it be capable of living for only several days, months, decades, etc.? Would there be any threat upon opening a casket or tomb of an infected person?

1. Generally if it were very fresh. The closer the contact, the better--especially if whoever is making contact has open wounds. But it really depends on agent being spread. Somethings can be infectious through the lungs, some things can't.

2. You need something like the bacteria anthrax has been mentioned as something that could survive a long time. It is of a type of bacteria that forms a spore so that it can survive a long time. It basically goes into hibernation. That said, I'm not sure that there are any spore formers that spread very quickly, especially not from person to person (it's probably an evolutionary trade off, being able to survive in the environment, it doesn't really need to move quickly from host to host in order to pass on its genes). Note though, that very few bacteria form spores; most (including the ones that tend to cause epidemics) don't.


Connie Willis does something similar, though not as widespread, in Doomsday Book.

Or a virus can escape from a lab, such as smallpox or the Spanish flu, and then mutate.


Unfortunately, as much as I love the work of Connie Willis, most of what she included in Doomsday Book made my virologist wife cringe when she reread it a few months ago, especially the stuff about a virus surviving in a grave.

A lab escape is at least plausible, though there are lots and lots of safety precautions in place. Which is to say that you'd need to figure out a way that those safety precautions would break down. Sudden war, especially an attack on the facility, might work. But that said, it might not be as all consuming as you want. We've eradicated small pox once, we could definitely do it a second time, before it spread very far.

The thing about an ancient burial is--were something to survive--you could have something on your hands no one has seen before that, maybe, wiped out a whole village but didn't get any further just because there wasn't the population density and the interconnected world that we have today.


When they were excavating for the new Crossrail tunnels in London they found a number of plague pits from the Black Death. There was genuine concern that there might be live plague bacteria around. None was found to my knowledge but that does not preclude the possibility.

I'll believe you that there was concern, but I'm not sure that there needed to be. On most surfaces it survives less than three days. Here's a paper of scientists surprised that it lasted 3 weeks in the wild--they hypothesize that the bacteria survived on the blood left by the animal it killed--but such nutrients would be long gone in an ancient burial. http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/14/6/08-0029_article.htm

You can compare that with, say, Smallpox which, despite being a virus, lasts considerably long. In good conditions, scabs from smallpox patients had virus that survived for more than a year. The scabs kind of work like spores to protect that virus (except the host makes the scab). But more than a year isn't enough to get you to an ancient burial.



When you're dealing with something like Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy it's different because it's spread by via prion, which is an infectious protein, and God help us if we ever come across a really contagious version of a prion. Mad Cow Disease is spread by eating food contaminated with CNS tissue.

I'm not sure if a prion could be highly infectious, since it has even less control over its future than a virus; it works purely by recreating itself--which is why they've always so far been spread by eating an infected host, about the most difficult manner of spread ever. Also, while devastating, it wouldn't make for good story telling because prions take years and years to cause any problems.


As for your questions, I'm not a scientist, but I have a decent amount of medical training.

1. That said, if there is freezing, or maybe even salt packing going on bacteria and viruses can live longer. I read an article a few months ago that said the melting of the permafrost could present problems as at least one ancient virus thawed and became infectious again.

http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-26387276

There was a lot of backlash against the proclamation that smallpox could come back from the permafrost. The basic problem is that a single virus particle isn't enough to make someone sick. And the melting permafrost won't have a high concentration of particles. Even if some have survived, others wouldn't have, and the virus would have been diluted in the water before it froze and as it thaws. The pithovirus in that article was able to be infectious because it just had to infect a single celled life form. That said, you might have some luck if you find the completely intact perfectly frozen body of someone who had died of whatever just before being frozen. (That's probably the most likely solution). But, that said, the process needs to be perfect. Microbes can be preserved well in freezers in labs, but nature doesn't make anything as cold as quickly, and it tends to go through freeze/thaw particles.


During the Crimean War, 1854, the British and French were going to set up in what is now Romania and landed their armies near a lovely, uninhabited valley. When they started digging in they also started having people become ill with Plague. The valley had been abandoned centuries earlier because of the Plague, and the bacteria had survived in the soil since then. As was pointed out viruses seldom survive long outside a host, but many bacteria do just fine in the soil.

I can't find the incident you're talking about, so I can't say for certain what happened. But I'd guess that the Y. pestis was probably actually in local wildlife, and that the soldiers ended up much closer to that wildlife than is normal. I live in an area were Y. pestis is seen in the wild, especially in prairie dogs, and there is an occasional human case--though we know how to treat it).


Or it could be a bacterium that happens to not respond well to any of our antibiotics; but Id expect an explanation for that as most of them responded just fine until we misused antibiotics and made resistant strains. (No time to look up Anthrax which a niggle is telling me might be more resistant from the get go?)

Anthrax in the body responds well to antibiotics. But in the spore form I'm pretty sure it would just shrug it off. There's something similar for many bacteria, called biofilms, where whole bunch of bacteria get together and end up insulating each other from antibiotics and other attackers (but not phage, which are viruses that attack bacteria). But yeah, if the bacteria were resistant to antibiotics, that would be a possibility. But it would be difficult to become resistant that quickly.


Its perfectly possible to have a virus that mutates (either naturally or with human help) into a horrific killer and overwhelms the hospitals. The Spanish flu almost did that right after WWI. Everyone is keeping a beady eye on MERS right now. Its got a 40% or so mortality rate (as of the last data crunching I heard of in Saudi Arabia) and is poised to escape from the region if were not careful. Its been jumping from camels to people for a while but now it looks like its mutated enough to jump from people to people.

Avian flu could do the same thing out of its reservoir in China.


As I said at the start, the mutation that tends to happen tends to make a virus less deadly from the start. There was research recently that got horribly misreported by the media--it was characterized as scientists making a super deadly version of H5N1 flu. But what they were doing was trying to figure out what would happen in nature if it mutated to spread better from person to person. At least, they checked what happened if it could spread from ferret to ferret, which isn't the same thing. The result--they could make something that spread well, but didn't manage to kill ANY ferrets.

As to MERS, it's been able to spread from person to person for some time, since about the beginning. The US media made a lot of a case of spread that happened in the US, but I'm not sure its extraordinary. If surveillance weren't so good, we wouldn't even know that he had contracted MERS because he only had a cold. What we're really on the look out for is when MERS starts spreading effectively. And, yes, MERS kills a high percentage of people, but most of those are already sick with something else.

The biggest thing that's going to stop the next pandemic is surveillance. We know how to slow/stop the spread, especially person to person. There would be a lot less MERS cases if people weren't so fond of their camels, and there aren't that many so far. Surveillance is a lot better now than it once was; if this happened thirty years ago, we might only now be figuring out that there's an epidemic of a specific virus.


The Spanish Flu, or a variant very close to it - H1N1, has come around a few more times, but hasn't been nearly as deadly. Flu is not persuasive as a massively deadly pandemic.

If you had actual Spanish flu, it might be as deadly (though modern medical technology would reduce the severity of the disease). As I've said, mutation happens to make diseases less deadly. This is a pattern; a new type of flu appears, it causes a pandemic, but in subsequent years descendent virus just becomes another strain of seasonal flu.


Probably, but there are strains of bacteria that are naturally to a wide range of antibiotics. There are strains of Y. Pestis in the wild that are very, very resistant, just as one example.

That's actually still because of human use of antibiotics. Antibiotic resistance spreads from bacteria to bacteria very easily so resistance that evolved in a hospital can get into the wild. Here's a paper that suggests that that resistance was transferred to Y. pestis from other bacteria while in the gut of its vector, the flea.



The burial ground in my WIP is set in Iceland, which I think would cover the freezing and melting. I would assume, if the freezing hypothesis is right, bringing the disease into a lab or assuming the remains to be safe of any transferable illness could lead to an outbreak if the remains are handled improperly. It could only take a minor slip-up with something previously unstudied?

Hypothetical scenario: a burial ground is uncovered in Iceland after years of ice melting due to weather conditions, scientists find the remains marked with evidence of some sort of disease previously unrecorded in history; the remains are taken to a handful of different labs for analysis, and are found negative of any known disease, this allows a false sense of security in the scientific and medical communities; after further testing the remains are released for public viewing alongside an exhibit on the remains' culture, travelling across countries over the course of a year; after coming in contact with the remains museum workers, scientists, and medical professionals, begin to show symptoms congruent with a known illness and the symptoms are misdiagnosed as treatable; clusters of similar illness pop up across the globe, are misidentified, and the illness eventually mutates/evolves to resist the drugs used to treat it. After the disease is found to be more violent than previously thought, quarantines are put in place for all those who have come in direct contact with the remains as well as communities presenting symptoms.

Would a viral or bacterial disease be better suited for this hypothesis? Is there a viral or bacterial disease that leaves marks on bone?

Approximately how long would it take for a vaccine or treatment to be identified and manufactured if a majority of disease centers have been put out of commission?



A few thoughts. Iceland might not be the idea place for an ancient disease. You don't have the same history of massive numbers of people, and colonization is relatively recent. Northern Russia or Northern Canada could work better.

If there's evidence of disease, the scientists aren't going to settle for anything known. Even if they don't believe that there's viable material, then they're still going to look for anything and everything, with lots of gene sequencing. They're going to take precautions. They're going to be very careful around the body. It does just take one slip up, but biosafety precautions exist to prevent slip ups. And here's the thing, the disease will have maybe 72 hours to spread from the body to its first living human host after it has thawed out. Which means that it's going to spend that entire time with people only looking cautious. By the time it gets to the museum, the virus won't be viable anymore. Bacteria might, except the body is probably mummified (if it weren't, there would be steps to preserve the body so it doesn't get taken over by bacteria and go rank while under the museum lights). I guess, though, if they don't immediately thaw it out for some reason, the virus would last longer.

A much more likely scenario is that a hiker comes across the body as its starting to thaw, at just the right time. They think it's recent, touch the body, try to help, get the police and EMTs, they also get up close and personal with the body, before its handed over to scientists. They could spread the disease. If I recall correctly something similar happened in Greg Bear's Darwin's Radio (not a book I would recommend for its science)

If, somehow, the research infrastructure has been destroyed, it could take decades for a vaccine, really that depends on just how bad the infrastructure has gotten, and that's up to you; it really depends on the virus though, some are easier to create than others. An easy to produce vaccine would take a few years under good conditions, minimum. (The exception is flu, where we just have to slot in the new virus into an existing formula for making flu vaccines, and even though it takes the better part of a year to produce enough vaccine) Antibiotics obviously could be produced much more quickly--it's just a matter of seeing which work and which don't. Antivirals take a lot longer to develop, but if its a hard vaccine to develop, than they could be produced somewhat more quickly.


I'm relying on a bit of suspended disbelief for this, so it doesn't need to be airtight but believable in the right light.

Ah, well, there you go. You really don't have to please me. I'm glad you're trying to see what you can do. I read to much that doesn't even have a basic understanding of viruses.


Vaccines? This is my biggest frustration with medical fiction. Right now, we are at best eight/nine years away from a vaccine being commercially available to fight HIV. I've been following the career of Dr. Harriet Robinson since 2002, she's been working on what I consider to be the most promising HIV vaccine since the 90's and she still hasn't reached phase III human trails.

HIV is an outlier for a number of reasons, it's hard to find a good target on the protein envelope, it probably doesn't help that HIV targets immune cells. A frequent question leveled at HIV researching grad students is, why don't we have a vaccine yet--because people initially predicted we would have one by the early 90s. Dengue is another difficult virus because you have to get everything right the first time. A bad vaccine could easily make the disease worse. Basically, the first time a person is infected by dengue, it's not so bad. But there are four types, and if you are subsequently infected by another type, the left over immunity from the first infection causes a drastically worse disease.

But there are easy to make vaccines, and an unseen virus could or could not be one of those. A lot of the problem is that the first vaccines were just killed or attenuated (made not dangerous) forms of the actual virus. The immune system sees and learns from those, and is ready to respond when the regular virus comes around. And that is easy to come up with. (Actually the first vaccine, for smallpox, is even easier--take a related but less dangerous virus and carefully infect the patient). If the virus is susceptible to that kind of vaccine, if its easy attenuate the virus, then the regulatory steps could take longer than the science.

By comparison to HIV, it only took 7 years to get the polio vaccine to the public, once we were able to replicate it in the lab (1948-1955) (something that's going to be easy now for 99% of viral pathogens, Hepatitis C is an exception). The last three of those years were dedicated to testing the vaccine. He had already tested the vaccine on his family in 1952. If we had to produce a polio vaccine from scratch today, it wouldn't take that long.


This is an important factor because genetically coded antibiotic-resistance can be transmitted this way. So one can imagine an ancient disease reemerging and then acquiring anti-biotic resistant from some related modern but less virulent strain.

This is probably a bit clearer than I've stated it. Though the resistance doesn't even have to be transferred from a particularly related bacteria.


I may have misunderstood the definitions, and not clearly stated what I think they mean. What I have read about vaccinations (through Google) lead me to believe there is a difference between inoculations and vaccinations- inoculations being the pure strain of a disease, and vaccinations being a weakened version of a strain. What I mean to get at is the primitive(?) use of inoculations seen prior to the coining of the term "vaccination", i.e. introducing a virus via open skin or air passage rather than injection. The inoculation using physical materials of the disease, rather than a lab manufactured strain for injection.

What you're talking about is variolation, which we did for smallpox before we discovered that cow pox worked as a vaccine. It involved giving a controlled infection. It's not going to be a good option very often, because it's usually too dangerous. But depending on the disease, it's possible. Still, as I said, vaccine is more of an option that MDSchafer suggests (it's as much of an option as you want it or don't want it to be).

But another option that this reminds me of, and this is also risky, but less so, and it doesn't work on everything. It's possible to take blood serum from a patient who has survived the disease and give that patients who are infected--its called an antiserum (plural antisera). Basically it's a method to transfer the learned immune protection from one person to another. It's not a perfect option, it wouldn't be 100% successful even if the pathogen is susceptible to this kind of treatment, and it has its risks because you can end up transferring something else dangerous. (Think about all the screening that is done for blood donation to make sure that nothing is being transmitted). But it is the kind of thing that would be done before a vaccine can be created.

King Neptune
06-11-2014, 08:07 PM
Unfortunately, as much as I love the work of Connie Willis, most of what she included in Doomsday Book made my virologist wife cringe when she reread it a few months ago, especially the stuff about a virus surviving in a grave.

I enjoyed reading tht book, but the details were annoying.


I can't find the incident you're talking about, so I can't say for certain what happened. But I'd guess that the Y. pestis was probably actually in local wildlife, and that the soldiers ended up much closer to that wildlife than is normal. I live in an area were Y. pestis is seen in the wild, especially in prairie dogs, and there is an occasional human case--though we know how to treat it).I didn't find specifially what I meant, but there were refences to the Russian army having become weaker numerically as a result of plague in that region. Yes, it is quite likely that Y. pestis was endemic in the local rodents, rats, or whatever.

startraveller
06-11-2014, 10:42 PM
Buirechain, your post is definitely informative! Thank you.

What if the ancient burial site is nixed, and instead a new strain of flu (manufactured) hits during cold/flu season? This would harm those already suffering from compromised immune systems, and could lead to illness in those vaccinated for the common strain(s). The mortality rate does not have to be high running for an extended period of time, but spreads quickly and knocks out a chunk of the population before dying down. This would parallel the Spanish Flu.

The thought of using a bacterial infection (MRSA or Necrotizing Fasciitis) interests me as it would give a "zombie" visual. I know NF is rare in the United States, but for the sake of the story, what conditions would need to appear (or disappear) in order for it to spread on a large scale? I'm playing around with refugee camps and labor camps, so conditions shouldn't be too far off for those residing there to catch something.

King Neptune
06-11-2014, 10:59 PM
Buirechain, your post is definitely informative! Thank you.

What if the ancient burial site is nixed, and instead a new strain of flu (manufactured) hits during cold/flu season? This would harm those already suffering from compromised immune systems, and could lead to illness in those vaccinated for the common strain(s). The mortality rate does not have to be high running for an extended period of time, but spreads quickly and knocks out a chunk of the population before dying down. This would parallel the Spanish Flu.

The thought of using a bacterial infection (MRSA or Necrotizing Fasciitis) interests me as it would give a "zombie" visual. I know NF is rare in the United States, but for the sake of the story, what conditions would need to appear (or disappear) in order for it to spread on a large scale? I'm playing around with refugee camps and labor camps, so conditions shouldn't be too far off for those residing there to catch something.

If you want to knock off a significant part of humanity, then forget about flu. Even the Spanish flu only had a mortality rate of about 2.5%.

You would be safest dreaming up new bacteria that fits your specifications. Something that spreads by aerosols.

buirechain
06-12-2014, 03:41 AM
What if the ancient burial site is nixed, and instead a new strain of flu (manufactured) hits during cold/flu season? This would harm those already suffering from compromised immune systems, and could lead to illness in those vaccinated for the common strain(s). The mortality rate does not have to be high running for an extended period of time, but spreads quickly and knocks out a chunk of the population before dying down. This would parallel the Spanish Flu.

The thought of using a bacterial infection (MRSA or Necrotizing Fasciitis) interests me as it would give a "zombie" visual. I know NF is rare in the United States, but for the sake of the story, what conditions would need to appear (or disappear) in order for it to spread on a large scale? I'm playing around with refugee camps and labor camps, so conditions shouldn't be too far off for those residing there to catch something.

I wasn't trying to nix the ancient burial (if its frozen), just saying that you had to be really careful about how your write it. I get my hackles up because there's a lot of alarmism when it comes to diseases and people get unnecessarily scared and so argue that we should stop harmless research. I tend to think that authors can influence that, so instead of making this kind of pandemic seem like its almost certainly going to happen next year, you can make it seems like just the wrong set of coincidences are necessary to bring everything together.

Actually, that makes me think of another reason why you wouldn't want to do it in Iceland. A small western country is going to have a much better response to a potential pathogen. You might have the same problem in Russia, though there are lots of isolated areas where the population might not immediately report it to the central government, or the central government might not respond before the virus has spread throughout the village of whoever found it. But there are plenty of countries with glaciers, and if your diseased character got stuck in the glacier at just the right time (pretty much what you need to happen is to have the body completely frozen the entire time between the death and when it's found. A cycle of repeated freeze thaw freeze thaw would probably destroy the DNA in the virus or bacteria). Then put that in a country that doesn't have the same level of scientific and medical research and that doesn't want to interact with western professionals (one thing that enflamed the SARS epidemic was that China pretended that nothing was going on for a long time before they eventually had to admit that there was an epidemic on their hands). So find a country where those two features collide with the presence of glaciers--maybe a place like Burma/Myanmar, maybe something you made up, and by the time the rest of the world knows that anything is going on, the initial steps that could slow a small epidemic can no longer be taken.

At least you need to be careful if you want to satisfy me. But your job isn't to satisfy me. I won't stop you from doing something that isn't realistic. I think if an author if they're going to break certain rules to create a better story is best off if they know what the rules are. It's like with light speed travel and any number of Science Fiction stories. The authors know that what they're doing is impossible, so they find hopefully ingenious explanations to show that they've worked around the impossibility, say by traveling through a different universe to get there (which is only a practical impossibility, since opening a wormhole would only require harnessing the power of multiple suns).

But lets work with your new scenario. A really bad flu could kill a lot of people. Yeah, as King Neptune says, 1918 flu was only 2.5% of those infected, but when you start thinking about that, it's still a lot of people--especially since an unusually large number of those people were young to middle age adults, the group that tends to die the least in any epidemic. It ended up killing more people than any other pandemic in history. Y. pestis may have killed 40% of Europe, but it wouldn't survive today because of far better sanitation (we don't live with rats--unless we have them in cages) and access to treatment. But you could imagine a flu that's even worse.

1918 was H1N1. Those two letter number combinations are an important indicator of what made of the virus, and what the human immune system was responding to. Hemagglutinin, the H, and neuraminidase are proteins on the surface of the flu virus that the immune system can latch onto. 1918 probably would have been worse if it was the first flu with either H1 or N1. But both had occurred before; an H1N8 had been circulating since about 1900, H3N1 had been common for much of the latter part of the 19th century, and the oldest individuals would have been exposed to a different H1N1 (and despite the name, there are important differences). None of that would be completely protective, but that could make you less sick and less likely to die.

Now, take that forward. Let's say something knew suddenly arises, with hemagglutinin and neuraminidase that no one or next to no one alive has ever seen before. Let's say H7N9. I'm not 100% sure that H7 and N9 haven't been prevalent in people across the globe at any time in the last century, but lets for the moment say they haven't. And let's say suddenly H7N9 is capable of transmitting well from person to person, and it become a pandemic. Maybe intrinsically it's no worse than Spanish flu, but because immune systems aren't ready for it, it could kill more people. Look at what Spanish flu did to isolated populations that probably hadn't seen as much flu. Some island populations lost nearly 20% of their population (though some of that may be because of less access to medical facilities).

Now, H7N9 isn't actual ideal, because it's in China, and we know it might come. Medical organizations are closely watching it to see if it shows even the first signs of becoming more transmissable from person to person. But let's say that something appears that we hadn't been watching. Maybe, to go back to your frozen burial scenario, a person had died of a flu with some H and N that hasn't been around for a few thousand years. Add to that, unlike anything emerging from birds, pigs, or bats, it doesn't have to waste time mutating before it can spread from person to person, because it was, in this scenario, already perfectly adapted for that spread when it killed our person buried in a glacier. Another option would be to go with something that has a very similar mechanism to flu but isn't flu (or maybe it's Influenza d), and no one's immune system has seen anything like it in millenia.

If I was going for pure death and destruction, something like this would be ideal. It's pretty good at spreading, and an unknown strain would be even better. We would eventually have a vaccine, but not before it kills a lot of people. If you want anything besides death--a particularly bloody death, or a chance at surviving with paralysis, then you might want to look elsewhere, but flu is a good first choice--but only if all the planets are perfectly aligned.

What about something flesh eating? Here's the thing, starting with MRSA. A lot of people have MRSA or are exposed to MRSA, but they don't come down with symptoms, because a normal healthy immune system can laugh it off. True story, I know a doctor who as a resident or at some other training stage was talking with another doctor in the hospital about MRSA. The other doctor said that "yeah, MRSA is everywhere in this hospital, including on that wall" and preceded to lick the wall. I have a feeling that the story has been exaggerated, but there was no harm possible because the doctor was healthy and not susceptible. That's why necrotizing fasciitis is uncommon. Many of the cases you hear about involve significant wounds. The case of a student who acquired it while zip lining happened because she fell of the zip line, got a deep cut, and landed in water that had the bacteria.

The easiest way to bring about more cases would be to reduce sanitation and reduce the ability to take care of normal cuts so they could become infected. Okay, maybe that's not what you want to do to America before your story starts, or maybe that is if you have massive refugee camps in poor condition--but it wouldn't easily spread beyond the camps. Even then, though, it wouldn't spread very well. Maybe if you want that kind of symptom, you could have the primary infection make patients extra susceptible to staph aureus (it doesn't even have to be MRSA; if the medical community is already overwhelmed a lot of treatable diseases would go untreated).

If you want it to be the main infection, that might be a bit harder. What you need is for it to spread better--the gigantic flesh eating wound is unfortunately (for your story, not the world) a warning to everyone else to stay away lest they be infected. You could try to make it airborne but my inclination is that would lose some of the scary side effects. Staph doesn't really need evolutionarily to spread that much, at least not while causing disease, because it's everywhere, because it's often carried harmlessly. The flesh eating part of the disease is veering towards being an evolutionary dead end; it's eating itself out of house and home but once it gets through with its host it will have to go back in the soil, if anyone lets it.

What you really want for bacterial infection is a superspreader, some sort of typhoid Mary type who carries the bacteria their entire life but never gets sick. Of course, that's spreading on a small scale, not an epidemic scale. I wonder if you could make the bacteria somehow really good at creating that kind of inapparent permanent infection. Though the thing about typhoid Mary is she would have spread typhoid less if she hadn't been a cook (she was locked up at one point because she had changed her name and took another job as a cook after being told not to), and also hand washing would have been very helpful. So that kind of spreader could work in a refugee camp environment more than outside of it.

What you really want as has been suggested for optimum spread is something airborne. But you don't have the really disgusting symptoms in most cases with that kind of spread. The pathogen has no need to cause bleeding if it can spread by air (which is why it's not surprising that the many of the hemorrhagic diseases like Ebola are spread by close contact). And similarly when Y. pestis causes pneumonic plague, when the bacteria is primarily in the respiratory system, the set of symptoms are different because it doesn't get into the lymph tissue to cause buboes, for instance.

Maybe if you want that kind of symptoms you really want something that normally just causes flu like symptoms, a high but not extraordinary chance of death, but a slim chance of extreme symptoms. Polio, for instances, is unnoticeable in most people who get infected, about 10% develop minor (often flu like) symptoms, while in 1% the virus happens to get into neural tissue and then causes paralysis (the percentage varies by age; the younger you are the better off you it. Polio is actually a disease caused by improved sanitation, because everyone is exposed to it eventually anywhere it is endemic, but if sanitation is bad when you live you'll probably be exposed to it when you're a baby). So you could have your airborne virus or bacteria normally causing flu like symptoms, coughing sneezing, pneumonia, and in a small % of cases it could accidentally wind up somewhere that it could do some other sort of damage.

Anyway, I'm getting long winded (as if I ever wasn't) and I've given you about 50 mutually exclusive options to consider. And I need to get away from the computer.

startraveller
06-12-2014, 08:40 AM
Thank you for the info, it's quite a lot to consider and well appreciated.

There is one other thing I've been wondering- in the reading I've done and from what has been shared here, the risk of infection from remains is low. Dead bodies don't (usually) spread disease. This being the case, would there be any health risk in burning a diseased body? I don't expect it would be any more of a danger than standing around a campfire would.

buirechain
06-12-2014, 05:49 PM
I wouldn't suggest having a disease in a story spread that way. Fire is going to destroy anything organic, and that includes bacteria, viruses, etc. Labs that work with dangerous material throw all their trash into an autoclave (a method for cleaning stuff by making it hot via high pressured steam) before throwing it out. In some cases bodies of Ebola victims are burned (though in others they're buried). The method of disposing of the body doesn't matter so much as how much care is taken not come into contact with the body or fluids from the body. One of the things that spreads Ebola is that after death it's traditional in many areas where Ebola occurs, for family members to wash the body of the departed before burial (so yes, spread can happen with a dead body, so long as the virus or bacteria hasn't had time to die off, and depending on the method of transmission).

But I could imagine a scenario where a body is being burned, a piece of clothing that is soaked in the victim's blood and that hasn't caught fire yet and hasn't gotten very hot, is caught in an updraft and then floats back down, landing on someone watching who has an open wound exactly where it lands. It's not impossible, but it's not exactly likely, especially if precautions are being taken while it's burning.