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‘Pandemic’ rings warning bell about gene-editing technology

Brooklyn BookBeat

December 11, 2018 By Waka Tsunoda Associated Press
Putnam via AP

When there’s a scientific breakthrough, Brooklyn-born Robin Cook doesn’t just stand up and cheer. He uses his fertile imagination and writes a novel about its possible perils.

In his latest medical thriller, “Pandemic,” Cook dramatizes the scary side of a miracle molecule called “CRISPR/Cas9,” which can easily be custom-tailored to seek out and alter genes in humans and animals.

The story begins when a seemingly healthy young woman with a transplanted heart boards the subway in New York City but suffers abrupt respiratory distress and dies before she reaches her destination.

Jack Stapleton, a medical examiner who appears in 10 of Cook’s previous novels, does an autopsy. He suspects that an unknown, flu-like virus is responsible for her death. He is duty-bound to identify and stop the virus before it can cause a pandemic and kill millions.

Stapleton welcomes the challenge as a “diversion” from his many personal problems. To name a few, his daughter has just been diagnosed with autism and his mother-in-law is blaming his genealogy for it. His wife, Laurie Montgomery, has unexpectedly been named the chief medical examiner, making her his boss both at home and at work.

Stapleton’s investigation reveals that a hospital in New York performed the woman’s heart transplant at the request of the Dover Valley Hospital in New Jersey. Dover also paid all her medical bills.

Realizing that “something weird is afoot,” Stapleton drives out to Dover and receives a warm welcome from its owner, Wei Zhao, a Chinese billionaire businessman who holds a double Ph.D. in molecular biology and genetics.

Wei, a body-building enthusiast who admires Arnold Schwarzenegger, makes an intriguing villain. The novel also offers an intriguing look at the subterranean world of medical examiners, but “Pandemic” goes far beyond just entertainment.

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By graphically showing what could happen were CRISPR/Cas9 to fall into the wrong hands, the author rings a much needed warning bell about gene editing technology.

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