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27 July


Coronavirus epidemic predicted 40 years ago?

In the book "Eyes of Darkness" was already said about the epidemic in Wuhan

Photo: Xinhua

/NOVOSTIVL/ "The Eyes of Darkness", a 1981 thriller by bestselling suspense author Dean Koontz, tells of a Chinese military lab that creates a virus as part of its biological weapons programme. The lab is located in Wuhan, which lends the virus its name, Wuhan-400. A chilling literary coincidence or a case of writer as unwitting prophet? This article appeared in the SCMP.

In "The Eyes of Darkness", a grieving mother, Christina Evans, sets out to discover whether her son Danny died on a camping trip or if he is still alive. She eventually tracks him down to a military facility where he is being held after being accidentally contaminated with man-made microorganisms created at the research centre in Wuhan.

If that made the hair on the back of your neck stand up, read this passage from the book: "It was around that time that a Chinese scientist named Li Chen moved to the United States while carrying a floppy disk of data from China’s most important and dangerous new biological weapon of the past decade. They call it Wuhan-400 because it was developed in their RDNA laboratory just outside the city of Wuhan".

In another strange coincidence, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which houses China’s only level four biosafety laboratory, the highest-level classification of labs that study the deadliest viruses, is just 32km from the epicentre of the current coronavirus outbreak. The opening of the maximum-security lab was covered in a 2017 story in the journal "Nature", which warned of safety risks in a culture where hierarchy trumps an open culture.

Fringe conspiracy theories that the coronavirus involved in the current outbreak appears to be man-made and likely escaped from the Wuhan virology lab have been circulated, but have been widely debunked. In fact the lab was one of the first to sequence the coronavirus.

In Koontz’s thriller, the virus is considered the "perfect weapon" because it only affects humans and, since it cannot survive outside the human body for longer than a minute, it does not demand expensive decontamination once a population is wiped out, allowing the victors to roll in and claim a conquered territory.

It’s no exaggeration to call Koontz a prolific writer. His first book, Star Quest, was published in 1968 and he has been churning out suspense fiction at a phenomenal rate since with more than 80 novels and 74 works of short fiction under his belt. The 74-year-old, a devout Catholic, lives in California with his wife. But what are the odds of him so closely predicting the future?

Albert Wan, who runs the Bleak House Books store in San Po Kong, says Wuhan has historically been the site of numerous scientific research facilities, including ones dealing with microbiology and virology.

"Smart, savvy writers like Koontz would have known all this and used this bit of factual information to craft a story that is both convincing and unsettling. Hence the Wuhan-400," - says Wan.

British writer Paul French, who specialises in books about China, says many of the elements around viruses in China relate back to the second world war, which may have been a factor in Koontz’s thinking.

Publisher Pete Spurrier, who runs Hong Kong publishing house Blacksmith Books, muses that for a fiction writer mapping out a thriller about a virus outbreak set in China, Wuhan is a good choice: "It’s on the Yangtze River that goes east-west; it’s on the high-speed rail [line] that goes north-south; it’s right at the crossroads of transport networks in the centre of the country. Where better to start a fictional epidemic, or indeed a real one?".