As a youngster, I was fascinated with science-fiction and adventure novels. My favourite author was Scottish novelist Alistair MacLean (1922-1987), master of popular thrills and breathtaking plots. Three of his books -The Guns of Navarone, Ice Station Zebra and Where Eagles Dare – were made into blockbuster films. Selling over 150 million copies worldwide, he was rightly titled as one of the best-selling authors of all time.
The deadly coronavirus pandemic took me back in a time machine to 1962, to Maclean's thriller The Satan Bug. The plot takes place at the height of the Cold War between the then two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. The story revolves around the theft of two test tubes from a British microbiological lab. One of the tubes contains the "Satan Bug", a genetically modified derivation of the poliovirus, developed as part of germ warfare preparations. There is no vaccine for the lethal Satan Bug, which threatens to destroy all human life on Earth.
Was Maclean's book a self-fulfilling prophecy? Only time will tell.
One thing is for sure, several fiction and science-fiction novels initiated some of the groundbreaking inventions of the last century. Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea inspired American engineer Simon Lake to build the first submarines for the US navy. Another Verne's science-fiction novel, Robur the Conqueror, deals with a wondrous flying machine equipped with several horizontal and vertical propellers. Russian-American aviation pioneer Igor Sikorski must have read it before he set to design his first helicopter.
British writer H. G. Wells (1866-1946), nicknamed the "father of science fiction", foresaw the advent of aircraft, tanks, space travel, nuclear weapons, satellite TV and more. His novel, The World Sets Free (1914), contains the first description of a nuclear weapon. The plot revolves around an invention that accelerates the process of radioactive decay, producing bombs that explode for days on end. In 1932, the physicist and conceiver of nuclear chain reaction Leó Szilárd read The World Set Free, a book which he said made a great impact on him.
Last but not least, American engineer Martin Cooper, head of Motorola's R&D department in the 1970s, invented the first handheld cellular mobile phone. It has been stated that Cooper's vision for the device was inspired by the Communicator of Captain Kirk in the TV series Star Trek.
Sixty years after Maclean's The Satan Bug, we realize once more how imagination becomes reality: a new lethal virus threatens to extinct the human race.
It was early evening when the phone rang at Professor's He Jiankui office in the Beijing Genomic Institute.
"Gonkxi ("Congratulations" in Chinese)! I am happy to inform you that our patient has just given birth to two healthy and beautiful twins".
Jiankui recognized the voice at once - Dr. Ching, director of the maternity ward at Zhauxin Medical Center. The young professor jumped out of his chair.
"What wonderful news, Doctor!" he exclaimed. "I am on my way. And don't forget to register them as Lulu and Nana".
Three hours later, after greeting the excited parents and taking a brief look at the newborns, he returned to his office, set to share the breaking news with the world.
It was indeed a major breakthrough in human genome research. In the video he uploaded to Youtube, Prof. Jiankui presented the twin girls as the first human genetically modified babies. Since the future father was diagnosed as HIV-Positive, Prof. Jiankui cut off a section of the embryos' DNA chain, which enables the HIV virus to attack the immune system, by using a technology known as CRISPR-Cas9. Then the embryos were implanted in their mother's womb. The genetic edition made the twins immune to AIDS for the rest of their lives.
The video clip soon became viral, igniting the imagination and hopes of millions of patients with hereditary or incurable diseases. Jiankui's achievement was praised as a major scientific breakthrough, and his name was mentioned as a Nobel Prize nominee. But his downfall came as fast. With the compliments came a wave of critique and condemnation from scientists and research institutes all over the world.
"It's insane and unethical! This experiment exposes healthy babies to the risks of genetic editions, with no justification whatsoever"
"It's the first step of a monstrous procedure that will have a destructive impact of humankind! This so-called researcher is a criminal. In any Western country, he would have been behind bars by now!"
He was nicknamed "the Chinese Frankenstein", and there were some who even threatened his life. But Prof. Jiankui didn't shy away. A month later he took part in the Second International Summit on Human Gene Editing, held in Hong Kong.
"Over the past month I have visited dozens of Chinese villages, that a third of their population is HIV-Positive", he told his audience. "Knowing that CRISPR is a life-changing procedure for those miserable villagers, made me feel proud in my experiment. Gene-editing is a therapeutic procedure and should be treated as such. We, doctors and scientists, must be on guard against any attempt to misuse this technique for eugenic purposes".
Two days later, when he returned home in the upper-class neighbourhood of Dongzhimen, his heart skipped a beat. The black police parked out front was an ominous sign. His feelings didn't mislead him. His wife Shane sat on a chair, mouth gagged, hands cuffed behind her back, eyes dilated with horror. She was surrounded by three masked men.
Before he could utter a word, one of them grabbed him forcibly, allowing his colleague to put a black yuta sack on Jiankui's head. The last thing he remembered before losing consciousness, was being dragged to the van outside.
The next day, the official state-run news agency Xinhua announced that the police arrested Prof. He Jiankui and two of his research team, on charges of violating the medical code of ethics. They were tried at a speedy trial and sentenced to three to five years in prison.