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Sunday, November 28, 2021

Speakeasy: Bitten by the Bug

On the many plagues of humankind.

Written by Pratik Kanjilal |
Updated: April 14, 2019 7:00:37 am
The Andromeda Strain Around the World: The book that kicked off the modern plague lit genre.

From texts as dissimilar as the 1968 cult classic Night of the Living Dead and the comparatively sophisticated Andromeda Strain, which was published the following year and made Michael Crichton’s reputation, popular culture has generally held bugs from space responsible for the plagues of humankind. Nothing less would seem to account for their cataclysmic arrival, seemingly out of nowhere. The truth is completely prosaic, though — plagues are anthropogenic, and break out when humans alter ecosystems to favour a particular organism, or wipe out the competition to create greenfield spaces for hardy organisms. Such is the story of the superfungus Candida auris, which was discovered only in 2009 and has spread to 32 countries, causing deaths and alarums and excursions in hospitals on three continents.

The rise of C. auris, which may have lurked unnoticed for millennia, owes entirely to human intervention — the massive use of fungicides in agriculture and on farm animals which winnowed away more vulnerable species, giving the last bug standing a free run. Sensitised to clinical fungicides, C. auris has proved to be difficult to extirpate, and culls infected humans who cannot fight diseases very effectively — infants, the old, diabetics, people with immune suppression, either because of diseases like HIV or the use of steroids. The new superfungus has the makings of a future plague, one of several which may cumulatively surpass cancer as a leading killer in a few decades.

The origin of C. auris is known because it broke out in the 21st century, but the plagues from antiquity lack origin stories. Even their spread was understood only retrospectively, in the light of modern science. The father of all plagues, the Black Death, originated in China in the early 14th century and ravaged most of the local population before it began its long journey westwards down the Silk Route, via Samarkand. At the time, the chain of hosts that carried it would have been incomprehensible — the afflicting organism Yersinia pestis, the fleas which it infested, the rats which the fleas in turn infested, which carried it into the homes of humans. It’s like the never-ending Kannada story about the man from Madikeri who went to Bengaluru with his family and their dog. And the dog had a flea in the fur at the tip of its tail. If it carried fleas with Yersinia pestis, the man from Madikeri would be dead, and most of his friends and relatives, too.

The plague took about a decade to cover the distance to the Black Sea — about the same time that it has taken C. auris to travel from Japan, where it was first detected in the ear of a woman, to five continents. The difference in speed owes to progress in transport. The plague hitched rides on slow camel trains, while C. auris flies on intercontinental passenger jets. But the story of its arrival in Europe, where it coloured the religion, art and philosophy of generations from Bocaccio’s Decameron (1351) to The Seventh Seal (1957, featuring a dans macabre), concerns flight — not on aircraft, which were sadly unavailable at the time, but on military catapults.

This thread of the story, too, was forensically teased out. It was noted that the plague was first reported in Europe from ports where four Genoese ships fleeing the trading city of Kaffa in the Crimea made landfall. The Genoese held Kaffa (now Feodosia in the Ukraine), and thereby controlled one of the lucrative trade routes from China and India. The Venetians wanted to cut in, and backed the Kipchak Turks in a highly effective siege of Kaffa. But just as the defenders were about to be starved out, they gave thanks and raised Hosannas, noting a thinning of the ranks of the enemy. The plague was running riot in Kipchak khan Jani Beg’s army, and it should have been only a matter of time before the siege collapsed. But the khan was inventive and determined to share his misfortune. He trained his catapults, normally used to launch fireballs and rocks into enemy fortresses, to fling the corpses of his plague-infected soldiers into Kaffa. It is probably the oldest-known instance of biological warfare.

Four shiploads of Genoese who were in good health fled the city. But they did not understand that the holds should have been cleared of vermin, and wherever the ships tied up in Italy, the plague broke out. This story is a slender thread, and the sundering of a single link would have kept the Black Death away from Europe. But the thread held up, and from it hangs our entire legacy of plague literature, all the way from Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) to Jose Saramago’s Blindness (1995) and PD James’s The Children of Men (1992). Almost all of the great plague novels seem to have been written by people whose ancestors suffered the Black Death in medieval times, in Europe. Is there a large body of plague literature in Asia, where the plague originated?

Meanwhile, there is a whole genre of future plague literature which was kicked off by The Andromeda Strain in 1969, and carried forward somewhat by Richard Preston’s nonfiction thriller The Hot Zone (1994). It concerns viruses, genetics, dystopias, blood and guts, and is mostly waiting to be written – waiting for an impetus like Candida auris, which has just started what many fear will be a long killing spree.

Pratik Kanjilal lectures a surprisingly tolerant public on far too many issues.

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