The Smallpox Scare (an extract from Vernon Coleman’s 1980 novel Tunnel)

In 1980 I wrote a novel called Tunnel. It was a futuristic disaster novel about an explosion inside the (as then un-built) Channel Tunnel.

One of the passengers was carrying a small vial of smallpox…

1143 hrs. August 5th, Hotel Continental, Paris
The journal that Dr Singh held was printed on expensive glossy paper and filled with highly coloured graphs. The title, The International Journal of Cardiac Pharmacology was printed discreetly in the top centre of the front page, and beneath it, as is customary with so many technical journals, there was a list of the major articles appearing in the journal. Dr Singh's right forefinger prodded repeatedly at the title of an article which he himself had written, and which described in glowing scientific detail the many advantages of the new drug ‘Angipax'.

‘They liked it, then?' asked Dr Singh, who had just finished describing to the ACR Drogues' senior Northern European representative just how difficult it was to get an article published in such a well-esteemed specialist journal.

‘Very pleased with it,' nodded Ernest Taylor, the drug company representative who was well accustomed to dealing with egotistical medical specialists, and who considered himself to be something of an expert at commercial obsequiousness. Like any competent car salesman, he always managed to find a consuming interest which he could share with his customers, but, unlike an ordinary salesman, he had the extra imagination to ensure that he never knew quite so much about their mutual interest as his customer. This talent enabled him to imbue his customers both with sympathy and a real feeling of superiority.

Dr Singh all but purred with satisfaction.

‘I hope your people haven't forgotten that little arrangement we have,' he said, carefully putting the copy of the International Journal of Cardiac Pharmacology back into his Dunhill document case, itself a gift six months previously from Taylor himself.

‘Of course not,' said Taylor quickly. ‘Our medical director, however, did wonder if you felt it entirely sensible, considering all the circumstances.'

‘What do you mean?' frowned Singh, edging forward and breathing clouds of stale brandy into the representative's face. Taylor didn't flinch. ‘We had an arrangement, didn't we?'

‘Of course we did,' agreed Taylor. ‘And no one is trying to break the arrangement. We just wanted to be absolutely certain that you felt that nothing had changed.'

‘Why should anything have changed?'

‘I don't know,' said Taylor. ‘You're the expert, doctor,' he added quickly with a sycophantic smile. Personally, Taylor had felt the arrangement to be a bad one when the company's medical director had made it with Singh. But it wasn't his job to quarrel with the medical director; especially when Dr Singh had just produced an article in a major specialist journal which would give them notable references to quote on world-wide advertising literature.

So the agreement had been made and, although it had never been put on to paper, for reasons that were only too obvious to everyone concerned, ACR Drogues et Cie were morally committed to providing Dr Singh with one vial of smallpox virus. Presuming, that is, that one can have a moral commitment to an illegal act.

‘We're doing research into the efficacy of a new anti-viral drug we've developed,' Singh had said. ‘And since the disaster in Birmingham ten years ago, the World Health Organisation hasn't allowed researchers access to the smallpox virus. Our virus man says there just isn't anything more suitable for the research we're doing. I don't suppose you have a supply do you?'

Taylor had referred the specialist to his own medical director, Dr Jackson, and the three of them had met ten months previously in a hotel in Geneva. There, Dr Jackson had confirmed that the company did indeed have its own private stock of smallpox virus, but had pointed out that holding the stock, let alone allowing it to be used, was prohibited by the 1982 Geneva Research Convention.

Singh in turn had pointed out that he had recently been appointed an international editor of two leading medical journals, and that neither he nor his colleagues intended to do anything dishonourable with the virus. ‘We only want it for valuable medical research,' he said, ‘This is life-saving stuff we're doing. If we can develop this anti-viral agent, it could be the biggest breakthrough since penicillin. Our specialist feels that another two years' work could see him well on the way.'

Dr Jackson had agreed that an effective anti-viral with wide-ranging uses would be both clinically and commercially valuable. In return for a signed, witnessed contract giving ACR Drogues the legal right to exploit commercially any product developed within Singh's laboratory on payment of a royalty, Dr Jackson had personally authorised the withdrawal of a vial of smallpox virus from the ACR laboratory in Basle.

And clearly, Singh had not forgotten the arrangement, as Taylor had rather hopelessly prayed that he might.

In his three-room suite at the Continental, Taylor handed over a small steel case to Singh. It looked about the same size as an ordinary pocket cigarette lighter.

‘Look after it!' said Taylor as he handed the case over. Singh looked at him in surprise. He wasn't used to this side of Taylor. ‘There hasn't been a case of smallpox in the word for a decade now, said Taylor. ‘And I doubt if there is anyone in Europe who's been vaccinated against smallpox. If you let this stuff out, you'd do more damage than Attila the Hun.'

Singh began to mutter something but thought better of it. He took the case from Taylor and stuffed it into his pocket. He didn't intend to start taking advice from drug company representatives, but neither did he want to upset Taylor. He enjoyed the good life that ACR helped him live.

Taken from Tunnel by Vernon Coleman. Tunnel is a rather scary futuristic novel. It was first published in 1980 and is now available as a paperback and an eBook.