Ebola vaccine–why so slow?

OwwThe news media have been flooded with stories about a new vaccine against the Ebola virus. So, where is it?

The answer: These Things Take Time, is not entirely satisfying. But that is just what the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control have been telling us since the news of an Ebola epidemic in Africa first hit the media. For instance, ABC, NPR, and the BBC have all run recent stories about the possibility of a new vaccine, and the impossibility of releasing it quickly to the public.

I suppose everyone knows that safety testing is the key issue, and the Food and Drug Administration is extremely strict in its guidelines for what it will and won’t allow in a clinical testing program for a new drug or vaccine. The FDA’s go-slow, be-safe attitude is the major rate limiting step in the process. But there are other issues as well.

Another criterion of the FDA is what they call “efficacy.” A new drug or vaccine isn’t deemed approvable if it just does no harm. It’s got to do some good, as well. And it’s this second criterion of efficacy that has everyone holding their collective breath about whether or not the Ebola vaccine now being tested will make the final cut. It’s already shown itself to be rather wimpy when put up against the virus.

There is a Catch 22 operating here. If you try to create a vaccine that causes a rip-roaring response in every vaccinated person, you are liable to create a vaccine that causes a lot of side-effects, up to and including death. So the choice is usually to tone the vaccine down somehow, and hope you haven’t killed its usefulness completely.

VirusThat’s what the first volunteers are getting: a heavily toned down vaccine. It’s already been shown in animal studies not to cause any detectable harm to vaccinees. On the other hand, it has been shown to wear off quickly, leaving them susceptible to the virus again after as little as 10 months. That’s a far cry from smallpox or polio vaccines, which usually give lifetime immunity.

However, smallpox and polio vaccines are made from whole viruses, either killed or mutated to less infectious forms in the lab. Even those sometimes revert to their deadly forms and cause the very disease they were intended to prevent. No wonder native populations are often afraid to allow themselves to be vaccinated.

The trend in modern vaccine research has been to try to split the difference and come up with an efficacious vaccine that has carefully been designed to be unable to cause any type of disease. But there is no guarantee the researchers can hit this mark exactly. Hence the present caution with the Ebola vaccine, combined with doubts it will be strong enough. I wish us all well, on this one.

If all this gets you interested in the workings of vaccine labs and the people who inhabit them, then may I suggest my medical thrillers, The Neah Virus, and The Jihad Virus? These books give you the opportunity to learn about this branch of science while being engaged in some heart-stopping fictional tales of Ebola-like outbreaks.

In The Neah Virus, my super-intelligent biomedical sleuth, Dr. Peyton McKean, develops a subunit vaccine much like the current Ebola vaccine, which contains just a portion of the virus–one of the knobs shown on the gnarly virus at right, above. The story has it all: special interest groups protesting for quicker vaccine development, defects in the vaccine that may make it deadlier than the disease itself, corporate greed operating behind the scenes, and infighting among the scientists who are developing the product. Prepare to be astonished. It’s not too far from the way things really are!

In The Jihad Virus, poor Dr. McKean is infected with the virus himself, and must try the most desperate measure of all. He and his lab helpers design, synthesize, and inject themselves with a vaccine created virtually overnight. They do this by a method called chemical peptide synthesis, for which my old buddy Bruce Merrifield won the Nobel Prize. In my fictionalization of this process, the illustrious Dr. McKean tries to save himself with a vaccine he creates with unprecedented speed.

The Hopp and Woods methodWhat’s most interesting about this fictional concept is that it has a basis in real science that I published long ago, at the time I was a visiting scientist in Dr. Merrifield’s labs. Here’s the scientific literature reference, if you need too much detail. Even though the account of an overnight vaccine in The Jihad Virus is fictional, it could actually be accomplished in real life using my method.

Sometimes, late at night, I wonder why the FDA, CDC, and NIH haven’t contacted me to give it a try on Ebola. On darker nights, I sometimes wonder why the CIA, NSA, and the Army haven’t abducted me and forced me to make some for their clandestine purposes. Wait a minute! I feel another novel coming on…

Believe me, if I were infected with a new virus for which there was absolutely no vaccine available, I would most definitely go to a lab, use my method, make a vaccine overnight, and jab it in my arm. I am sure the FDA would look at this askance, but if my life were on the line… You get the picture.

For now, however, truth is slower then fiction.

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Ebola, anyone?

Bring out your deadOut of the rainforests of Africa, came Ebola. Out of the rainforests of Washington State, comes the Neah Virus!

With awful news coming out of Africa on a daily basis lately, it seems I crafted a very timely story when I wrote my medical thriller, The Neah Virus.

Almost daily someone asks what it would be like if such a deadly virus broke out in America. Well, no need to speculate further. Just pick up a copy of The Neah Virus and find out!

the culpritAs in all my mysteries and medical thrillers, I follow the exploits of Dr. Peyton McKean, a vaccine researcher and sometimes medical miracle worker.

In this story, a virus breaks out at the farthest tip of the Olympic Peninsula and spreads lethal contagion on a crash course for Seattle and every big city beyond. McKean is dispatched by the Centers for Disease Control to try to identify the source and find a cure. Along the way, his own life comes under mortal threat.

The Neah Virus is available in all popular ebook formats and in paperback at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other outlets. Here’s a sample of an early moment as events are just beginning to unfold:

“Rabies!” I exclaimed. “So that’s what made Pete Whitehall go mad!”

“That makes some sense,” McKean allowed, “given Whitehall’s violent behavior. But this is not exactly rabies virus.”

“That makes me all the more nervous,” I said.

“I would conclude that this virus is indeed a member of the lyssavirus family,” McKean said, “but the DNA probes say it’s not authentic rabies. Maybe it’s a distant family member.”

“Family member? You mean there are other rabies viruses?”

“Oh, most assuredly,” said McKean. “Rabies belongs to a large group of related viruses, the mononegavirales, which include the rabies-like animal viruses Mokola, Duvenhage, and West Caucasian bat virus, as well as more distant cousins like measles, mumps, and Ebola.”

“Ebola!” I exclaimed. “Now you’ve got me scared.”

Janet added, “We didn’t test for all those viruses because we didn’t have the full set of virus microchips.”

“But you can get more?”

“Certainly,” she replied. “And we can keep looking until we find a set of viral DNA probes that match this virus exactly.”

“And if none match?”

“Then we’re looking at a previously unknown virus,” said McKean. He put a hand on Janet’s shoulder and his eyes lit with inspiration. “Imagine discovering a whole new member of the lyssavirus family.”

Janet smiled. “We could co-author a paper.”

“A whole series of articles,” McKean replied enthusiastically. “Or publish a book!”

“But wait a minute,” I said, interrupting their happy communion. “If it’s related to the rabies virus, it might be deadly. It killed the Spaniard, didn’t it?”

“Deadly? Quite possibly,” said McKean, his smile diminishing.

“If it killed the Spaniard,” I pressed him, “and if it killed Pete Whitehall, then—”

McKean’s smile disappeared and the light of scientific excitement faded from his eyes. “Then,” he concluded for me, “you and I may have been exposed to something dangerous.”

“And Gordon Steel’s claim of a Lost Souls disease—”

“Might have a basis in fact. But let’s not get ahead of our data.” He turned to Janet. “You can get microchips from Kay Erwin at Seattle Public Health Hospital covering every known mononegavirus. Let’s rule them all in or out. After that, we can decide whether or not we’ve got something new.”

My heart rate had kicked up several notches. “Are we in danger?” I asked.

McKean thought for a moment and then murmured, “Answer: unknown.”

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Dinosaur Wars 3 paperback available now!

DW3fullCoverThe trilogy is complete! I’ve just been snooping around the web and I’m delighted to report that the new paperback version of Dinosaur Wars: Blood On The Moon, the third book of the trilogy, is now in bookstores everywhere!

What you see here is the full cover, with front, spine and back covers shown in one piece, just the way it’s done when printing a hard copy of the book.

Things turned out just like I hoped they would. I’m thrilled with my publisher, CreateSpace, for doing such a great job.

So now, at last, if you have been following the adventures of Kit Daniels and Chase Armstrong on the printed page, you can complete their journey with them. This time around, they’ve taken on even greater challenges than before. They are en route to the moon to confront the evil dinosaurian leader Saurgon, in his lair at the south-polar crater, Phaeon.

Plenty of laser-blasting action. And this has got to be about the first time an M-16 assault rifle has been fired in the vacuum of space. Do you suppose they really work up there?

Read–and find out!

I think Kit looks rather fetching in her form-fitting spacesuit, don’t you? Nothing’s too good for the Princess Leia of this story. And how about Chase? He looks ready to be the second intrepid Armstrong to tread the lunar dust.

If you like the kind of excitement you find in Star Wars and Jurassic World, then check out this series from start to finish. It’s got it all: laser blasting space invaders, a simmering love affair, and a huge cast of dinosaurian characters. Find Blood On The Moon and the other paperbacks on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or other booksellers worldwide. And if you prefer your adventures in ebook format, you can find those too. Not only that, but the first ebook, Earthfall, is FREE while supplies last!

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DW3 gets a new cover

DW3ed2coverAs the release date for the new paperback edition of Dinosaur Wars: Blood On The Moon draws near, I’ve finally got the new cover art. I think it gets the point of the story across pretty well.

There’s Kit Daniels, looking pretty in her pink spacesuit, and as formidable as Princess Leia, given the M-16 assault rifle she’s chosen as an accessory.

And there behind her is her favorite beau, Chase Armstrong. He’s helmeted up for a jaunt on the surface of the moon, where some laser-blazing action awaits him.

Behind them, that’s their buddy Gar The Kra, lofting his deadly aseeta blade skyward in anticipation of a showdown with humanity’s arch nemesis, Saurgon, who awaits the heroes in his lair at the south pole of the moon.

AmazonianDW3Compared to the cover of the first edition (at right) this second-edition cover is much more detailed and does a better job of telling the story in the blink of an eye. Of course, it leaves the outcome of the adventure unstated. Debonaire as they may appear, there’s nothing on the cover to betray whether they all make it back from their lunar sojourn.

Those answers await the release of the new edition, which I expect to happen in the next few weeks. In fact, I’ve already pushed the go button for release of the paperback from CreateSpace. It takes a few weeks for a book–whether paperback or ebook–to work its way through the distribution channels, so it’s not time yet to shout it to the world. However, it wouldn’t hurt to check around if you’re interested, because Dinosaur Wars: Blood On The Moon–like Saurgon’s death ray–is poised to hit every corner of the earth!

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New paperback — almost here

Just a quick note to update the status of my latest publishing endeavor. Dinosaur Wars: Blood On The Moon has passed a couple of the final hurdles to publication. I finished red-lining the text revisions for the new book early this week, and I am just now putting the finishing touches on the new cover art. Everything is in readiness for publishing sometime this week–I hope.

Life sometimes sends little inconveniences, like paying work. But nothing on the radar screen just yet, so let’s keep fingers crossed.

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More fuzzy dinosaurs

FuzzysaurusI was ahead of my time when I wrote fur-covered plant-eating dinosaurs into my Dinosaur Wars novels in 2002 and 2004. I had already written and illustrated feather-covered meat eaters in the original story in 2000. Now, in 2014, dinosaur diggers in Siberia have come up with a new, wooly plant eating dinosaur they call Kulindadromeus. Its excellent state of preservation shows the fine details of a never-before-seen type of furry coating on the animal’s body, head, arms, and legs. Click the image for more detail on this cute, bunny-sized (although earless and rat-tailed) critter.

Fuzzy scales up closeThe wooly covering is intriguing in its own right. It consists of scales, out of which sprout bunches of hair-like threads. The scientists who described it suggest its multi-branched structure is related somehow to the multi-branched structure of feathers. So this stuff and feathers probably arose in a common dinosaur ancestor, way back at the beginning of the Age of Dinosaurs–or before.

In contrast to the complex branching forms of these structures, the hair that covers mice and men seems almost–gulp–primitively simple. Wait. Aren’t WE the most advanced species around here?

Anyway. If I may brag a moment. I created furry dinosaurs in my Dinosaur Wars novels, and my Dinosaur Tales short stories, based on a simple, unproven, but reasonable thought. If the meat eating dinosaurs were fuzzy and warm blooded (as was known as far back as 1986), then how could the plant eaters escape being eaten, if they weren’t every bit as fast and hot-blooded as their pursuers? So, even in the absence of fossil evidence, I developed some pretty complete verbal descriptions and a few images of plant eaters with warm, wooly coverings.

Wooly pachyI was about ten years ahead of my time when some of those imaginings were published in Dinosaur Wars: Counterattack, which is book two of the series. Since then, I have continued to dream up wooly dinosaurs. Click my more recent image of Pachyrhinosaurus for a close-up view of its furry coat. That took a lot of time for me to paint.

So, real science has finally caught up with my fiction. There’s something satisfying about that.

The only sad note here is that I’m no longer ten years ahead of my times. Hmmm. I’d better get back to dreaming things up again real soon.

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The Unprepossessing Phineus Morton

Fin as WatsonLong ago, while I was writing the original manuscript of The Jihad Virus, I had a minor revelation: the story I was drafting ran strongly parallel to a good Sherlock Holmes mystery.

It had quite a few similar story elements: a brilliant man solving deadly mysteries, scientific sleuthing methods, and a more-or-less faithful follower and chronicler of the events, who had a medical background himself.

In the Holmes stories, of course the chronicler is the now-famous Dr. John Watson, MD, Afghanistan war veteran, and target of Sherlockian epithets like, “Elementary, my dear Watson.”

In my stories, Phineus (Fin) Morton has no MD, but like Watson, he is a war veteran with a medical background. Furthermore, Fin is a soldier who served in both Afghanistan AND in Bagdad, Iraq. So he’s actually one up on Watson when it comes to comparing war wounds and post-traumatic stress symptoms. Fin served as a medical corpsman, and hence has plenty of background to inform his witnessing of events like the modern-day plagues threatened by The Jihad Virus and The Neah Virus.

Who better then, to accompany and explain the doings of my stories’ hero, Dr. Peyton McKean, biotechnology researcher, as he confronts evil villains and deadly contagion? Fin has the right combination: he’s a medical man with combat experience!

The parallels between Morton and Watson run deep.

Another realm of commonality is that of romance. In the Holmes stories, Sherlock was, well, just too far out there to end up with a girlfriend. In my stories, the illustrious Dr. McKean has already settled down with a wife and kid who have long since adjusted to his idiosyncrasies. As with the Sherlock stories, it is the sidekick who finds romance. Watson met his future bride on an adventure with Holmes. The same sort of thing happens for Fin Morton–repeatedly.

OuchPoor Fin. He’s had a rough romantic ride, at least so far, in my hands. He’s seen romance appear in each of two novels, first with the lovely and dangerous Egyptian horse trainer Jameela Noori in The Jihad Virus, and then with beautiful Native American shaman’s daughter Tleena Steel in The Neah Virus.

And yet he remains single. How can I be so cruel to him? Worse, he starts each new adventure with a broken heart. Of course, that sets up his redemption in each novel by finding true love.

Wait! I’m giving away much more here than I should tell. No more spoilers.

Because of the many parallels to the Holmes stories–right down to physical descriptions–I welcome you to imagine Fin as the currently most favored Watson, the actor Martin Freeman. He’s as close a match to my description as I have seen. That’s just a coincidence, since The Jihad Virus was first released in 2004, long before Mr. Freeman had become prominent. But it’s a nice coincidence. In The Jihad Virus, Fin describes himself like this:

“I’m a medical reporter, a healthy twenty-seven-year-old male of average height and build and looks, with good vital signs. My tours in the Mideast left no physical scars on me, but I was not to be so lucky in the events I’m about to retell.”

You get the picture?

And, by the way, that Benedict Cumberbatch fellow does a passably good job of looking like my overly-tall, quirky, socially maladjusted sleuth, Dr. Peyton McKean. If Freeman and Cumberbatch would like a suggestion for a new movie together, may I suggest The Jihad Virus?

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Iraq Needs A Senate

Iraq 3 StatesIf Iraqis want the bloodshed to stop, they should create a Senate like the United States has. The not-so-democratic qualities of this institution could save their nation. I truly believe that.

Let me explain, using some maps I drew for the purpose.

In the first, I have drawn some heavy black lines delineating three “States” within Iraq, similar to the U.S.’s states. Think of them like North Dakota, California, and Texas, if you will.

Iraq GovernatesIn the second map, you can see these “states” contain within them subdivisions similar to U.S. congressional districts. I have rather arbitrarily slashed right across the boundaries of these “Governates,” as Iraqis call them. The reason why I did this is apparent in the third map: my “state” lines correspond roughly to the major religious and ethnic divisions of Iraq.

So, imagine an Iraq with a Senate comprised of 7 senators from each of the three “states,” all elected by the total popular vote of their “state.” What would the institution be like?

Iraq DemographicsWell, it would not be democratic, for one thing. It would have an equal number of senators from the Shiite dominated south (all seven having been elected along religious lines by the Shiite majority), and the Sunni west (again, all Sunnis, no doubt) and the Kurdish north (same story there).

Equal numbers of senators despite South Iraq having three times the population of West Iraq? Does that seem fair? Does it sound like a recipe for religious and ethnic division and deadlock?

Maybe not.

Let’s assume the three groups of seven always vote as unified blocks (not necessarily true, but likely). There is actually no possibility of deadlock, simply because of the math. Whatever law or bill is favored by two of the groups wins. And even if there are some crossover voters, the odd number of the total, 21, dictates that either the yeas or the nays will win. No deadlock. The U.S. senate operates slightly differently than this, but the effect is the same.

The key to all this is as follows: the three-state division of the senate would give minorities a voice that they now lack. For instance, if the Shiite “state” tried to pass legislation that the Sunni and Kurd minorities didn’t like, those two “states” could unite to vote the law down.

As things now stand, the only legislative branch up and running in Iraq is their equivalent of the U.S. House of Representatives (their Council of Representatives). But this body is elected strictly by popular vote, just like the U.S. House. The problem with that is the lack of representation of minorities and domination of the Iraqi government by the Shiite majority. Hence the need for a Senate.

Of course, a Senate can’t alleviate every problem, but at least the minorities would have some means to get their concerns heard.

Finally, I should point out that the “states” don’t even have to be defined with lines on a map. Given the powerful divisions within Iraq, it would be just as simple to have voters register as Shiite, Kurd, Sunni (other minorities, like Christians and Turkomens might have to join one or another of the three groups as they see fit).

I really believe this “State” orientation would help the situation a lot. It works pretty well in the U.S., a nation with deep regional differences that once suffered though a brutal and bloody civil war of its own.

Why does a Senate help to calm regional anger? Precisely because it is not-so-democratic. Consider North Dakota, California, and Texas. These states are from far-flung regions of the United States and they often have strongly held, disagreeing points of view. But here’s the key: the tiny population of North Dakota has the same number of senators (two) as Texas, the largest state of the three, and California, the most populous.

So, the Senate is the great equalizer in American politics.

Give it a try, Iraq.

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Saving lives–too busy to blog

It’s nice when the biotech industry comes knocking at my door and asks for my help saving people’s lives. I have been acting as an expert consultant to a new biotech company and we are under a deadline to get a clinical trial proposal to the FDA for testing a new anemia remedy.

Considering my father suffered from anemia in the years before he died, I am particularly happy to lend my skills in the battle to create a new drug to fight the disease.

This does, however, put my fiction writing on hold. My next book, Blood on the Moon, will suffer about a month’s delay.

Meanwhile, I wrote ’round-the-clock, literally, yesterday on our Investigational New Drug application. This is its own kind of medical thriller.

Bye for now. Gotta go get with it again.

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Blood On The Moon paperback coming soon

Blood On The MoonIf you’ve been reading Dinosaur Wars in paperback form, then you know the third and final volume of the trilogy, Blood On The Moon, has yet to appear in hard copy. Well, that’s about to change.

I am already midway through redlining the original text, making a few changes so that the story flows more smoothly, but not really changing who-does-what-to-whom. Taking red pen to page is a laborious process, but I had hoped to finish in time to release this new version, formally called Edition 2, by the end of June.

But events have conspired to make that timeframe slip.

RedRiverIf it’s any consolation to those waiting for volume three (I like to think of millions of dedicated fans clamoring, although the reality is somewhat less than that) there is a good reason for the delay.

You see, my old chums in the biotech industry have drafted me back into action. They want me to help them write a convincing application to the Food and Drug Administration so they can get approval to test their new anemia treatment in human clinical trials.

For the die-hard reader, I hope your frustration at the delay is moderated by knowing my sidetracking will potentially benefit millions of people who suffer the debilitating effects of a lack of red blood cells to carry oxygen around their bodies.

I think the slowdown is worth it. How ’bout you?

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