The Race Begins
The pandemic started innocuously enough. In April, the CDC got a report from Navy researchers that a child in the San Diego area had been infected with an unknown virus. A viral sample was bounced up a chain of laboratories to the CDC, where it was identified as swine flu. “We didn’t think that much about it at first,” recalls Nancy Cox, PhD, who heads the CDC’s flu division. It was normal to get an occasional report of humans stricken with swine flu. But the cases almost invariably occur in people who live on farms with pigs or who have recently encountered them at, say, a state fair. None of that described this boy.
“We thought, Hmm, this is interesting. But that was all,” Dr. Cox says.
Almost simultaneously, the Navy researchers picked up what looked like another infection, this one in a nine-year-old girl from Brawley, California, near the Mexican border. She hadn’t had contact with pigs either.
Even as the California cases were identified, a mysterious epidemic was exploding in the sprawling metropolis of Mexico City. “For a month, we had 35 to 50 people with respiratory symptoms every day in our emergency room. One day, we had 200,” says Javier Romo-Garcia, MD, of the National Institute for Respiratory Diseases in a southern district of the city. “It was really tough.”
The two story lines came together during a spring storm on the night of April 23. Mexican health officials had sent their patients’ viral samples to the CDC, and now Dr. Cox was on the phone with colleagues in Mexico City. As the lab equipment spit out the viral analyses, she read the results. They were identical to the ones she’d seen a few days earlier, she realized: The virus killing Mexicans was the same one that had infected children in California. A new and lethal virus was on the loose. “Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ,” whispered a scientist as the news was relayed.
But that wasn’t the night’s only shock. “When I finished the call, my cell phone rang again,” Dr. Cox says. “It was my daughter. I thought she and my husband were just upset because I wasn’t home for dinner, but lightning had struck our house.”
Dr. Cox ran home as soon as she could, but there was nothing to be done. She and her family watched as their home of 20 years went up in flames.
By the next morning, she was taking conference calls in clothes that still smelled of smoke. “It was devastating,” she says. “But I flipped a switch in my mind to concentrate on what we thought might turn into a pandemic.”