Before the time of COVID, my wife and I had built a quiet life on a Virginia horse farm.
Both of our homeschooled sons were healthy and happy, had graduated from college, were married, and we had one grandchild. The farm and tractor were mostly paid off. We homesteaded the place, starting with unimproved rolling hay fields purchased directly from the prior owner – no bank loans necessary. Beginning with an old office trailer, we had built up fences, power, well, septic, barn and both a main and a guest house over five years. Run-down historic outbuildings were being renovated. Years of experience in rebuilding and landscaping small farms had allowed us to create a working operation that was also a park and a garden. Our own private Galt’s gulch.
Our refuge is located in a sleepy Virginia county with about as many residents as before World War II, an hour and a half south of the bustle of the nations’ capital. Using American political slang, a red county in a purple state, stretching along the northwestern side of the Shenandoah National Park. Internet access is a problem, and television requires a satellite dish. The historic farms of USA founding fathers Thomas Jefferson (Monticello) and James Madison (Montpelier) are only a short drive away. The first Lutheran church in North America is two miles over the hill as the crow flies. Old established farming families control local politics. Trees pop up when no-one mows the grass. Amish and Mennonite communities work the land. Our Portuguese senior stallion was coming along nicely in his dressage training, we had a great string of brood mares, and home-bred Australian shepherd dogs were our daily companions. Travel planning consisted of trying to figure out how to budget a trip to the Golega Lusitano horse fair in Portugal or attend a horse competition in Texas. Price and availability of hay was a constant topic. Far from the maddening crowd.
Together with Dr. Jill Glasspool, my wife and partner in all things for over 40 years, I was maintaining a small boutique medical research consulting practice that paid the bills. We had started our lives together when I was working as a short order cook, farmer and carpenter; she as a waitress, and we have managed to work and pay our way through years and years of University training. This was our fifth small farm re-build. Our primary challenges at the time consisted of business development, writing, reviewing, and executing contracts, and juggling the very different demands of the consulting business, the farm and gardens, and the horse breeding operation. Occasionally I had to lead an NIH contract study section or review a manuscript for some journal, but that was just about all the contact I still had with the world of Academia that I had chosen to leave decades before, after the twin towers came down. I had recently picked up a promising new Rockville, Maryland-based client that supported clinical research and regulatory affairs for Chinese pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies seeking to bring their products to the US market. We were trying to build a more international consulting practice and reduce our dependence on what often seemed like arbitrary and capricious US Government contracts, and this seemed like a great step in that direction. A quiet, fulfilling, intellectually and physically rewarding peaceful life.
The anthrax powder letters had changed both the face of infectious disease research as well as my professional life as profoundly as had the advent of AIDS at the very beginning of my career. Shortly after the attacks, when the Norwegian investors in the genetic vaccine company Inovio we had helped launch pulled back out of fear of US instability, we were left high and dry with neither clients nor academic appointment, and of necessity I had joined a Department of Defense contract management firm called Dynport Vaccine Company (DVC) as Assistant Director of Clinical Research. DVC had recently received the “prime systems contract” for managing all advanced development (clinical and regulatory steps for licensure) of all Department of Defense Biodefense-related drugs and vaccines. Little did I know that DVC majority owner Dyncorp ran one of the two main US-based mercenary armies, that the field of “biodefense” was about to explode, my career path would be transformed forever, and I would be catapulted into the shadowy realm that exists between academic biotechnology research and US government-funded infectious disease intelligence, surveillance and threat mitigation. I came to realize that the world really did not want more “academic thought leaders”, and the true unmet need was for people who understood both the wild west of discovery research as well as the highly regulated world of advanced development – clinical research and regulatory affairs. If I really wanted to help people by enabling development and licensing of life-saving treatments, I should forget about the ivory tower world of academics and focus on learning the skills necessary to help companies navigate the world of the Food and Drug Administration and the European Medicines Agency. So that became my new career path, and I threw myself into learning and developing all that was required to meet this need. In the ensuing years I exceeded my hopes and ended up winning or managing billions of dollars in US Federal contracts to do precisely that.
Over the years before COVID, Jill and I had developed a modest network of friends and professional colleagues scattered across the globe. This network was built from our consulting practice, from when I was working on US Government-funded biodefense and influenza vaccine contracts, as well as my prior days as an academic teaching Pathology and Molecular Biology to medical students while doing bench research, writing papers, filing patents, and getting involved in various biotechnology start-up companies. And we had our horse friends of course. Linked-in, Facebook, occasionally Twitter and email correspondence allowed us to stay in touch with all of these. We both lived in two very different worlds that rarely touched each other, one involving cutting edge biotechnology and infectious disease medical countermeasure research, and the other one immersed in horses, hay, orchards, farm equipment, construction and the local feed store.
Somewhere between September and December 2019, a novel coronavirus entered the human population, began spreading like wildfire across the globe, and turned my world upside down. Maybe it also transformed your life also? If someone had described my life now to 2019 me, I would have assumed that they were a marginal Science Fiction writer specializing in dystopic cyberpunk.
Looking back, I am struck by how sheltered and naïve I was then (when viewed through the lens of my experiences since COVID struck), and how much both my worldview and my role in the world has been radically shifted by subsequent events.