WASHINGTON — A virus emanating from Asia sweeps through the world and infects millions. Panic spreads through American cities as business shut down, hospitals are flooded and authorities scramble to find ventilators and other badly needed supplies. The country’s social order seems on the verge of collapse as conspiracy theories fueled by Russian bots flourish.
That is the eerily prophetic plotline of “The End of October,” a new novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lawrence Wright. The medical thriller is out this week but was written over the course of the last three years and finished in July of last year — before anybody had ever heard of COVID-19.
How did Wright foresee the bleak scenario when so many at the highest levels of the U.S. government didn’t?
“I listened,” Wright said in an interview with Yahoo News’ podcast “Skullduggery,” describing his exhaustive research that included talking to the country’s top epidemiologists.
“Some of that was lucky guesses,” he said. “But most of it was just research.”
Wright, the author “The Looming Tower,” a Pulitzer Prizer-winning nonfiction about the rise of al-Qaida, said the idea for his new book sprang from conversations he’d had with director Ridley Scott about a decade ago. The movie never materialized, and Wright said he decided to turn the material into his first fictional work.
He said he considered a few options, including nuclear war, before settling on a script about a deadly pandemic. As a young reporter in Atlanta, Wright had covered the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and found himself mesmerized by the scientists there who were then trying to control a 1976 swine flu outbreak and, subsequently, Legionnaires’ disease.
“I was so interested in and enchanted by the scientists that I met — they were like intellectual, swashbuckling characters, and I was very admiring of them,” he recalled.
The main character in “The End of October” is a CDC virologist and epidemiologist who is dispatched to investigate a mysterious outbreak in Indonesia. The scientist is exposed to the virus and forced to quarantine but soon learns that the pandemic has spread out from Mecca as millions of Islamic pilgrims return home as part of the annual hajj.
The book includes scenes in which public health experts warn people to take the virus seriously, shelter in place, stay away from hospitals unless they need a ventilator and not take Advil if they fall ill — all reminiscent of the current coronavirus crisis.
“It was there. It was all there,” Wright said of his research. “The difference between what happened in the novel ... and the government’s inability to handle this is I simply listened to what the experts had to say.”
Download or subscribe on iTunes: “Skullduggery” from Yahoo News.
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