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Extract from Shadowing the Shadow: The hunt for the birthplace of the Black Flu by Kobayashi Yuma

While the loss of biodiversity is a major concern, the rapid depletion of Brazil’s rainforests poses a far more insidious risk. As more of the forest is converted to villages and farmland, the frequency of contact between humans and displaced animals is increasing, sparking unease amongst virologists that new viruses may emerge. Their worries are not without precedent. The origins of the deadly Ebola virus are unknown, but it is believed that the virus originated with bats or non-human primates, jumping to humans in the mid-1970s. The HIV virus which first emerged in the now Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1920s is believed to have crossed to humans from Chimpanzees. The 2020 Covid-19 pandemic which devastated the globe’s elderly is said to have begun through contact with a pangolin, also known as scaly anteaters, in a Chinese wet market.

While Brazil is dealing with growing cases of animal borne diseases such as rabies and malaria, the discovery of a Sigmodontinae rodent, a South American species of Cotton Rat known to carry hantavirus, at the Port of Alexandria, has experts scrambling. On hearing of the find, leading virologist Sean McTavish immediately boarded a flight to Cairo.

“Cotton Rats are solitary in nature,” he says, “but the old adage still holds true – where there is one, there are bound to be others. And for one to be found so far from its native habitat so soon after the emergence of a new disease is both worrying and intriguing.”

The disease he is referring to is the influenza strain known variously as Panda Eyes, the Shiner, and the Black Flu, which first emerged in an Egyptian refugee camp housing Palestinian and Israeli refugees on the banks of the Nile, and has since caused the deaths of millions of children worldwide.

Alexandria is a city of contrasts. Situated on the West Verge of the Nile Delta between the Mariut Lake and the Mediterranean, it is considered to be one of the oldest ports in the world. Ancient Mosques sit alongside steel shipping containers in a surreal dichotomy of time. The early morning chill is rapidly surrendering to the heat of the day as we poke about in the dark corners of warehouses, breathing in clouds of dust and bothering the dockers who are already hard at work. We are searching the rat traps which Sean set out the day before, hoping to find a live specimen to examine. So far, we’ve found five brown rats, three black rats and several empty traps with no sign of the elusive Cotton Rat.

“If we can find multiple specimens,” Sean tells me, “We can test for several variables. With enough animals, we can begin tracking the route they took to arrive here. More importantly, we can figure out whether these rats are the vector for the Black Flu.”

If such an association can be proven, it will lend weight to efforts to slow the rate of clearing of Brazil’s rainforests and may prove vital in the quest for a vaccine to the Black Flu. But first, the rats must be found.

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Categories: Fiction Friday

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