Here's how it would happen. Children playing along an urban river bank would spot hundreds of grotesque, bloated pig carcasses bobbing downstream. Hundreds of miles away, angry citizens would protest the rising stench from piles of dead ducks and swans, their rotting bodies collecting by the thousands along river banks. And three unrelated individuals would stagger into three different hospitals, gasping for air. Two would quickly die of severe pneumonia and the third would lay in critical condition in an intensive care unit for many days. Government officials would announce that a previously unknown virus had sickened three people, at least, and killed two of them. And while the world was left to wonder how the pigs, ducks, swans, and people might be connected, the World Health Organization would release deliberately terse statements, offering little insight.
It reads like a movie plot -- I should know, as I was a consultant for Steven Soderbergh's Contagion. But the facts delineated are all true, and have transpired over the last six weeks in China. The events could, indeed, be unrelated, and the new virus, a form of influenza denoted as H7N9, may have already run its course, infecting just three people and killing two.
Or this could be how pandemics begin.
On March 10, residents of China's powerhouse metropolis, Shanghai, noticed some dead pigs floating among garbage flotsam in the city's Huangpu River. The vile carcasses appeared in Shanghai's most important tributary of the mighty Yangtze, a 71-mile river that is edged by the Bund, the city's main tourist area, and serves as the primary source of drinking water and ferry travel for the 23 million residents of the metropolis and its millions of visitors. The vision of a few dead pigs on the surface of the Huangpu was every bit as jarring for local Chinese as porcine carcasses would be for French strolling the Seine, Londoners along the Thames, or New Yorkers looking from the Brooklyn Bridge down on the East River.
And the nightmarish sight soon worsened, with more than 900 animal bodies found by sunset on that Sunday evening. The first few pig carcass numbers soon swelled into the thousands, turning Shanghai spring into a horror show that by March 20 would total more than 15,000 dead animals. The river zigzags its way from Zhejiang province, just to the south of Shanghai, a farming region inhabited by some 54 million people, and a major pork-raising district of China. Due to scandals over recent years in the pork industry, including substitution of rendered pig intestines for a toxic chemical, sold as heparin blood thinner that proved lethal to American cardiac patients, Chinese authorities had put identity tags on pigs' ears. The pig carcasses were swiftly traced back to key farms in Zhejiang, and terrified farmers admitted that they had dumped the dead animals into the Huangpu.
Few Chinese asked, "What killed the pigs?," because river pollution is so heinous across China that today people simply assume manufacturing chemicals or pesticides fill the nation's waterways, and are responsible for all such mysterious animals demises. The Yangtze, which feeds Shanghai's Huangpu, has copper pollution levels that are 100 times higher than U.S. safety standards, and leather tanning facilities along the river have notoriously been responsible for toxic waste, including chromium. And across China -- especially in Beijing -- air pollution was so bad in January and February that pollution particulate levels routinely peaked at higher than 10 times the U.S. safety standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency. When I was in Beijing in late January, the air pollution was so thick that it visually looked like fog, obscuring all sunlight and even skyscrapers located less than three city blocks away. So, hideous as the pig carcasses might be, Shanghai residents tended to shrug them off as yet another example of the trade-offs China is making, pitting prosperity against pollution.
But 12 days after the first Shanghai porcine death flow was spotted, pig carcasses washed up along the shores of Changsha's primary river, the Xiang -- also a Yangtze tributary, this one located hundreds of miles west of Shanghai. Known as "the Sky City" for its 2,749-foot-tall central tower, Changsha is home to more than 7 million people and capital of Hunan province. Along with some 50 dead pigs, authorities collected a few thousand dead ducks from the Xiang on March 22 and 23.
Two days later, another mass duck and swan die-off was spotted, this time along the Sichuan River hundreds of miles to the north, near Lake Qinghai. The lake is the most important transit and nesting site for migratory aquatic birds that travel the vast Asia flyway, stretching from central Siberia to southern Indonesia. In 2005, a mass die-off of aquatic birds in and around Lake Qinghai resulted from a mutational change in the long-circulating bird flu virus, H5N1 -- a genetic shift that gave that virus a far larger species range, allowing H5N1 to spread for the first time across Russia, Ukraine and into Europe, the Middle East and North Africa -- it has remained in circulation across the vast expanse of Earth for the last seven years.