In Lost Immunity, the latest medical thriller by Vancouver emergency room physician Daniel Kalla, a malicious contagion infects a group of teenagers at a suburban Seattle Bible camp, catapulting the healthcare system into a crisis when the young victims succumb within hours of developing symptoms.
It is up to Dr. Lisa Dyer, Seattle’s new chief public health officer, to manage outbreak control of what turns out to be a particularly virulent strain of meningitis—Neisseria meningitidis, or meningococcus.
It is, a colleague tells Dyer, who’s just alienated a swath of the public by announcing mandatory HPV vaccines for teens, “the public-health equivalent of the moon landing and 9/11 in the same week.”
The outbreak is traced to another contagion six months earlier in Iceland that killed nearly half its youthful victims. The equally grim toll on Seattle teens requires drastic measures to preserve life. Dyer and her team learn that a new vaccine called Neissovax, developed by Delaware Pharmaceuticals, protects against this strain of meningococcus. However, it has yet to undergo final clinical trials. Despite this, the desperation of the situation calls for immediate mass inoculation of young people.
Seattle’s strident anti-vaxxers protest. Then, when the vaccine inexplicably sparks dire side effects, including death, they unfurl the flag of vindication. Dyer, faced with a potentially career-killing public-health crisis and a rapidly dissolving marriage, is thrown into self-doubt and self-recrimination as the body count mounts. She probes the catastrophic inoculation results, reaching a chilling conclusion: someone has poisoned the vaccine supply. But how? And why?
Kalla, who models his brilliant female protagonists after his mother, retired Vancouver physician Dr. Judith Hornung, began writing Lost Immunity before COVID-19 began its lethal metastasis around the globe in early 2020.
The similarities between Lost Immunity’s fictional meningococcal outbreak and COVID-19—and the panic both have sparked—can only be described as eerie.
Driving Lost Immunity is the controversy—at first glance seemingly justified—over vaccine safety. With Dyer and her medical colleagues trying to wrest control of the outbreak, the anti-vaxxer movement uses the tragedy to disseminate misinformation and pump up public fear of inoculation. It is a tactic currently being used in real life by conspiracy theorists, who promote frightening and false claims about COVID-19 vaccines.
Yet vaccines, Kalla tells us in an interview, are “a gift and the greatest miracle of modern medicine.”
“Vaccines are remarkably safe medications when you think of the scale of the number of people who get them and how few people actually get sick from it,” says Kalla, who is the department head of emergency medicine for St. Paul’s Hospital. If it were up to him, vaccinations for COVID-19 would be mandatory, especially for those in communal settings such as schools.
Lost Immunity plays with these duelling sides—rational versus irrational, science versus pseudoscience—but without presenting anti-vaxxers (who prefer the term “vaccine hesitant”) as single-minded extremists. Rather, Kalla presents them as sympathetic; one, Max Balfour, is a naturopath trying to deal with a severely autistic son who he (mistakenly) believes developed the condition after receiving his childhood MMR vaccine. Balfour later becomes a suspect in the vaccine poisoning.
“There’s lots of educated, well-meaning people in the vaccine hesitancy movement,” says Kalla, who has published 12 books (including this one) since 2005 while working full-time as a physician. Still, “I think they are a very dangerous movement that has grown over the past 20 years. With the growth of the internet, which tends to spawn conspiracy theories, you’ve had a mushrooming of this belief system.”
Kalla’s novels are inspired by the hurt, sick, and dying he sees limping—or being carried—into the ER at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver. His previous thriller, The Last High, followed a Vancouver physician and a detective as they tracked down the supplier of street drugs laced with fentanyl, a deadly opioid, that has critically poisoned a group of teenagers. Released in 2020, this novel, too, was prescient, coming out the same year as chilling new annual statistics for British Columbia’s illicit street drug overdose deaths— 1,716—up 74 per cent from 2019. (Kalla says he treats at least one overdose per shift in the ER.)
Is there another medical mystery being hammered out on Kalla’s computer? Of course there is. The next one, which doesn’t yet have a title, is set for release in 2022. Kalla calls it a psychological thriller that focuses on virtual medicine and takes place in a town in the Far North. There’s suicide and there’s murder—enough intrigue to likely keep readers turning the pages well into the wee hours.
Hopefully, by 2022, COVID-19 will be just a memory (though the new emerging variants may yet keep us immersed in the epidemiological version of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit). At least with Kalla’s Lost Immunity, it makes this gloomy situation a bit more entertaining.