I’d never heard of prion disease before watching these episodes, so for those who are ignorant as I was, here’s a 101 course in a paragraph: Prions are dangerous proteins usually transmitted by diseased or infected meat products. They trigger normal proteins in the human brain to waste away, but it takes seven to eight years before noticeable symptoms occur — dementia, hallucinations, muscle stiffness, fatigue, and difficulty speaking — after which point it takes about 6-12 months to die. There’s no cure for prion disease, and no vaccine; the best some medications can do is delay the brain-wasting process by a few months.
It’s nasty in other words, but typically rare. Only one or two people for every million die each year from prions. But in the fourth and fifth episodes Regenesis, the NorBAC team is called to investigate four sudden cases of prion disease in the U.S. Each victim died within a single week (not months) of showing symptoms; three elderly victims (one in Texas, two in California), but the fourth was a five-year old girl from Florida — which should be impossible since prions take at least seven years to tear down the brain. The question becomes how these unrelated people living far away from each other got what appears to be an extremely virulent form of prions.
But first things first. There are other crises in the NorBAC lab, not least the episode 3 tragedy hanging over everyone like a pall: Hira Khan’s death.
In the aftermath of the random shooting, Team NorBAC isn’t taking it well, especially David and Mayko, who have different ways of handling grief. David blames himself mercilessly (since Hira took the bullet that was aimed at him), but is outwardly stone cold, showing no compassion to his colleagues, especially Mayko who is visibly upset and unable to focus on her job. The tension between them festers until David tells her that she fucked up a report on the prion case, at which point she explodes, telling him to fuck off.
Mayko finally reaches a peace with herself, and is able to make the first dent in the prion case using her bioinformatics skills. By isolating the DNA of the four dead victims and looking for common genetic patterns, she finds that they all shared a rare transporter gene found in one in ten million people. This transporter shuttles proteins fast and doesn’t prevent certain toxic chemicals from entering the brain. It’s what fired the prions into the victims’ brains at an incredible rate, killing them in a week instead of years. While this says nothing about where the prions are coming from, or how many normal people have been infected, it’s the first illumination on a strange case.
Synthetic growth hormones
There is also the side plot of Danny Dexter, an old school friend of David who turns up. He’s a minor league hockey player, and has undergone gene therapy with an unusual synthetic growth hormone. The hormone has killed two other hockey players — their hearts suddenly stopped — but Danny is for the most part unfazed, despite David’s warnings.
David puts his team onto research in this area, and Mayko finds that a muscle hormone has been developed to help those with cocaxia and AIDS, with trials done by an Atlanta biotech company called Bioxene. The stuff that Danny took, however, is not the Bioxene growth hormone. What’s in Danny’s blood, rather, is a mutated version of skeletal muscle growth hormone; his cells are producing this skeletal muscle growth hormone instead of his own natural skeletal muscle growth hormone. So technically he’s not cheating at hockey; his body is cheating. Instead of continually injecting something into him that shouldn’t be there, he gets his body to make it, from a single injection of the DNA. Even though he has high levels of growth factor, no one can say with certainty that those levels are the result of gene doping.
But whose gene therapy is it, if not Bioxene’s? The NorBAC team finds that it was made by an Italian company, basing their work on the American Bioxene one, but in order to duck a patent infringement, they altered it just a bit — and it’s that change that inadvertently caused the hormone to act on the heart muscle, causing it to explode in the other two hockey players. (The Italian compound was never put into human trials, and so they didn’t detect the side effect.) David thinks he can reverse the gene therapy in Danny — whose muscle mass in increasing every day, 24/7; his heart is on borrowed time — but Danny refuses. Hockey is his life; he’ll take his chances. But hockey isn’t his life anymore when he’s cut from the team; he kills himself by swallowing a jar of pills.
In the fifth episode, Sarah Strange joins the cast as Hira’s replacement. David meets her at a Chicago convention, at Caroline’s request, none too happy about it. His resentment and contempt for Jill turns to lust when he realizes that she shares his obsession for the Spanish Flu and has actually published research on it. (Hence the fifth episode’s title, The Oldest Virus.)
Here begins a chain of events that will play out until the season’s end, with catastrophic consequences. In Jill’s conference speech, she explains how she acquired a fragmented sample of the Spanish Flu. Her crew found it in a victim from 1918 buried north of the permafrost line in Norway; but it wasn’t a sample with intact viral RNA. Nevertheless she was able to sequence the fourth of the eight segments’ polymerase. David is shocked to hear this and after her presentation asks her how she sequenced polymerase, to which she evasively replies the answer will be in her upcoming published paper. David guesses that she got the sample from a brain and not a lung, which she admits to, and he tells her that’s exactly how he did it, when he sequenced Spanish-Flu polymerase two years ago. She calls bullshit on him, since he didn’t publish (and doesn’t believe he could have acquired a sample of Spanish Flu), but David had no desire to go public without the entire genome.
He then tells Jill that he has a lead on a perfect specimen of the Spanish Flu (we will see where it is in episode 6), which leads to a lot of dithering on her part, as to whether or not she wants to come work at NorBAC — especially for an asshole like David, who already interviewed her in his hotel room that morning without any clothes on, and shat all over her accomplishments. That was before he knew she was a Spanish Flu guru. At the end of the day, she accepts the offer to join NorBAC, and after glasses of champagne takes a tumble in bed with her new boss. That’s how David and Jill go from mutually hating each other to joining forces in the space of twelve hours.
Back to the prions. Carlos finally discovers that ALV (avian leukemia virus) was in all the victims, a virus that causes cancer in chickens. The team realizes there must be a huge supply of infected chickens out there somewhere, and thus thousands more victims, maybe more, though of course these victims won’t show symptoms and die for another seven to nine years.
Through more detective work, the team learns that the four dead victims ate either chicken or eggs from local fast food restaurants, and that the wholesaler for each restaurant is a company called Shasco Foods. Shasco advises the team to investigate their biggest supplier, Wide Valley Farms, which leads Caroline to a meeting with their legal representative. She requests that Wide Valley Farms shut down their shipments until NorBAC tests their birds and eggs, to which the legal representative indignantly replies: “You’re asking us to put 500,000 people out of work? On a hunch?”
Caroline retorts that it’s more than a goddamn hunch, and the lawyer, wanting to avoid a public PR nightmare, compromises by allowing NorBAC to test samples of their birds and eggs, while refusing to shut down operations until actual proof is provided that their chicken is contaminated. That proof follows in short order, and Wide Valley agrees to depopulate three of their chicken farms, which will cost them 24 million dollars. And yet that sacrifice isn’t enough, because as David points out, there were probably roosters who spread the prions onto specimens that went to some of the other farms. He urges that those farms be shut down too, to which a congresswoman’s reply is: “Let’s not destroy the entire poultry industry that employees 500,000 Americans, Dr. Sandstrom.” And when Caroline suggests that the FDA should issue a public warning about Wide Valley Farms, they are stonewalled for the PR nightmare it would cause.
There’s no happy resolution. Wide Valley Farms, despite its noble shutdown of three chicken farms, is still shipping product that could be carrying a death sentence to tens of thousands of people. No one will know for sure for another seven to eight years, when symptoms start showing, unless the prions happen to claim more victims who have the rare transporter gene. What resonates during today’s Covid-19 pandemic is the prioritizing of jobs and economy over lives. To be sure, the economy is an imperative concern, and I have no patience with those who dismiss it lightly. Recessions are deadly, especially to poor people. When people are out of jobs and lose their homes, that cuts into their life spans; suicides increase; domestic violence skyrockets. But none of this means that governments shouldn’t respond responsibly to pandemic threats. The NorBAC team tries to get the government to do that in Prions and The Oldest Virus, and they are half successful.
Original air dates: November 7 and 14, 2004.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5.