In a dreary hearing room, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices staged its first public inquiry. At the center of an elevated, U-shaped table sat Chairman Santé. Though a renowned immunologist, his presence was rather understated. In fact, he looked like a small bird. From his perch, Santé squinted his black eyes, pursed his lips and swiveled his head about the room with anxious, twitching movements. To his left sat the Executive Secretary, Dr. Klein, who had her head buried in a dense procedural handbook. And on either side of the Chairman sat a bored-looking group of researchers and doctors — who were unrecognizable as such, having forgotten their white coats and stethoscopes. Rousing the committee members and quieting the hearing’s spectators, Santé briskly knocked his gavel.
“We are gathered here today,” he began in a shrill voice.
“Uh, Mr. Chairman,” Dr. Klein nervously interjected. The Chairman abruptly turned and narrowed his beady eyes at the Secretary.
Nearly whispering, Dr. Klein continued, “According to Subsection A-1 of Clause No. 2 in the parliamentary procedure handbook, you must first motion to open the public inquiry session, which a two-thirds majority of committee members must then approve.”
Grimacing, Dr. Santé obliged. His motion nearly failed, however, as several doctors were busily doodling on their prescription pads. Dr. Jones drew an elaborate mandala, Dr. Tobin sketched a portrait of Mandela and Dr. Vazquez, marveling at his newfound ambidexterity, traced his own hands.
“This committee is gathered today to determine the order in which the novel pandemic vaccine will be distributed,” the Chairman recommenced. “Though we favor geriatric frontline workers…I’m sorry…geriatrics and frontline workers, this is a democracy. So, the testimony of several interest groups will be considered. First to state their case for priority access to the vaccine, the representative of—”
“ALL in favor of welcoming the representative of the New York Union of Social Media Influencers,” Secretary Klein cut in. She was now more confident about the urgency of her procedural responsibilities, and smiled triumphantly after the committee members’ hands were counted.
Summer Bliss, the union president, approached the podium. Summer wore a stiff latex dress, emblazoned with the Kirkland logo. The outfit was part of a paid promotion to boost the sale of plastic straws, which, according to Kirkland’s market research, Gen-Z was heartlessly abandoning in favor of more “sustainable” alternatives. But unless Ms. Bliss remained perfectly still, the dress produced a rubbery sound, unfortunately amplified by the committee chamber’s vaulted ceiling. Careful to minimize any avoidable latex squeaking, Summer took slow, deliberate steps toward the podium, inching forward as if waiting in a crowded line visible only to herself.
Whispering among themselves, the committee members puzzled over Summer’s appearance. As she could no longer constitute herself through pixels, Summer’s “luxury minimalist” online aesthetic seemed to disintegrate before their eyes. The brave union leader had dropped her overflowing purse to the floor in a desperate attempt to locate and silence her cell phone, from which an obnoxious chorus of dings and pings had begun to sound. Spilling out of her bag, several portable UV lights — which served the dual function of self-tanner and germicidal lamp — loudly rolled toward the committee table.
“Shoot! My Malibu Dream Antimicrobial Bronzing Lamps, 10 percent off with code ‘SUMMER,’” cried the influencer. She concealed a grin with her hands — she knew her subtle product placement would earn her a generous kickback. Critics had called the business of Ms. Bliss and her influencer associates “pandemic profiteering,” but Summer preferred to think of it more optimistically: as her ticket to Cabo.
Still miles from the podium, however, Summer realized that her rubber gown did not support bending or crouching or crawling. Unable to collect her scattered belongings, the phone continued to ring, and Summer was paralyzed — rendered incapable of making her case.
“NEXT!” cawed Chairman Santé. Though he appeared no taller, the irate doctor was now standing in his chair.
“I think you mean, all in favor of escorting Ms. Summer Bliss to her nearest exit?” Secretary Klein chirped. “I cite Clause No. 15, Subsection B-4 — Formal Proceedings for the Removal of Incapacitated Guests.” Santé firmly pressed his lips together, as if to contain hot steam, and dabbed at the vapor collecting on his forehead. Wary of the aggravated Chairman, and perhaps sympathetic to Ms. Bliss — who was still marooned between the podium and the door — not a single representative stepped forward.
Seizing this opportunity for self-advocacy, however, four Malayan tigers entered the hearing room and prowled toward the podium. As they were not earlier permitted to sit in the public viewing area, the tigers expressed their vexation through the sinuous motion of their tails. The lead tiger, though, was apparently well versed in diplomacy. With a low growl, he calmed his agitated siblings, who proceeded to follow him in a neat single file. Despite the tigers’ reformed behavior, Chairman Santé loudly banged his gavel — which, upon closer inspection, was very clearly a lobster mallet. The doctor was particularly displeased by the big cats’ presence, as he suffered violent reactions to feline allergens.
“If you wish to be heard, puh-lease remember your etiquette. And do stand several paws behind the podium,” Chairman Santé sighed. Though tigers were not usual guests, the committee, a decade ago, had allowed the H1N1 swines a platform to defend themselves. For this reason, Santé concluded that it would only be fair to hear the tigers’ case.
Excusing himself, the lead tiger stood on his hind legs and neatly crossed his front paws over the podium. He then introduced himself and his cohort: They hailed from the Bronx Zoo, where, several months ago, they’d caught the virus from poorly mannered schoolchildren who’d coughed into their enclosures. Of course, the tiger spoke in his native tongue — a pleasant medley of meowing and growling. But the chairman, groaning, could not speak tiger. (Language instruction is often excluded from epidemiology curricula.)
“INTERPRETER!” Santé called. Despite the Chairman’s expectations, a tiger translator did not suddenly materialize before him. Woefully unprepared for the felines’ visit, the committee was forced to ask the spectators if any among them spoke tiger. One woman, a journalist for The Washington Post, had about a year’s worth of lessons, but this would be insufficient to communicate the tigers’ case. Still, the journalist knew just enough to politely ask the tigers if they would please step away from the podium until a professional interpreter could be located. Purring their assent, the big cats filed into the first row of spectator seating. In the meantime, perhaps to encourage more spectators to testify, Dr. Klein introduced a procedural amendment.
“This advisory committee warmly invites, and deeply appreciates, the testimony of any member of the public — provided, of course, that they agree to release and discharge said committee from liability arising from the large feline predators seated in the first row, behind the podium,” Dr. Klein read from a legal pad.
An enthusiastic knocking at the door seemed to suggest that the Secretary’s indemnification clause had greatly reassured the public. Facilitating the entrance of the committee’s next guest, a guard pried open both sides of the hearing room’s double doors. In strict adherence to pandemic safety regulations, the man at the door wore a thick wooden disk with a six-foot radius. Strapped to his shoulders with bungee cords, the disk extended from his body at the level of his waist, ensuring he was socially distanced from any passerby. Though terribly obtrusive, the disk, at least, doubled as a purse: Its wooden face could open, revealing a hollow space suitable for the storage of groceries, accessories and even a small child. Apart from the disk, the newcomer’s appearance was otherwise unremarkable, save for his circular glasses. Each lens was covered by a large plastic googly eye. Despite his obstructed vision, the man navigated the aisle unassisted, stopping exactly an inch before his disk reached the podium. As if witnessing a miracle worthy of canonization, the spectators oohed and aahed at the man.
“I’ll have some order here, if it’s my dying wish!” cried the Chairman. Santé was unable to share in the crowd’s excitement: The tigers’ grooming had released dander into the air, bringing painful hives to the surface of his skin.
“Agreed!” Dr. Klein inserted. “Sir, please state your name, age, residence, occupation and favorite color, for the official record.”
“I am Sebastiano Adalberto Pietrapennato Montecorvino,” he began, in a thick Italian accent. “I’m 47, reside in New York, serve as a pandemic backline worker, and I quite like the color clear.”
“A backline worker? Could you clarify?” asked an intrigued committee member, whose colleagues seemed more interested in determining whether “clear” could indeed be a color.
“Why, of course! It’s why I speak to you all today,” the Italian exclaimed, gesturing with pursed fingers. “The media, the politicians…they only talk of frontline workers. But it’s us backliners, working behind the scenes, who are curbing the spread. We need early access to this vaccine to continue our efforts,” Mr. Montecorvino explained. The plastic pupils of his googly eyes frantically tracked with the nodding of his head, giving him a deranged, cross-eyed expression.
“And how do you go about this work?” asked the Chairman, pinching his nose to withhold a tiger-induced sneeze.
“Allow me to demonstrate,” replied the backliner. Removing a key from his shirt pocket, Mr. Montecorvino unlocked a compartment on the face of his disk. From this hollow space, he produced a cast iron pan and a glass vial containing a live beetle.
“We’ve developed a sterilizing strategy with 100 percent efficacy,” the man boasted. “Our logic is quite simple, really: If you can squish a bug, you can also squish a viral bug!” Raising the pan above his head, Mr. Montecorvino brought the cookware down with surprising speed, smashing the glass-enclosed insect. The man clarified that the committee members would require a microscope to observe this phenomenon at the cellular level, but promised that the technique was effective even at breaking atoms into quarks.
While the medical researchers on the advisory committee feigned knowledge of the Montecorvino methodology, they were actually dumbstruck. With their hands, several doctors concealed their mouths, which they were unable to keep from forming tiny O’s as round as the man’s portable disk. Whispering among themselves, the researchers wondered whether their scientific hubris had blinded them, pushing them to develop ever more complicated chemical disinfectant formulations. Perhaps virus-killing could be as simple as a whack on the head.
Though primarily focused on their campaign of decontamination and prevention (bug-smashing), the backliners comprised an internationally coordinated scientific vanguard. Perhaps the medical revolution would not be televised, but WhatsApp groups transcending borders (and the outdated values of empirical thought) would record the backliners’ many innovations. One of Montecorvino’s colleagues, a Brazilian woman, had just demonstrated the therapeutic benefits of self-administered concussions: pandemic-induced anxiety can be easily remedied by temporary incapacitation, she claimed in earnest. And another of the Italian backliner’s comrades, hailing from Iceland, had recently praised the curative properties of a diluted solution of Clorox and mosquito repellent. The unorthodox medicine not only halted viral replication, but also (anecdotally) alleviated back pain, eliminated signs of aging and cured color blindness.
“Any instrument will suffice to squish the bug! Even your hand!” Mr. Montecorvino added, his voice rising over the excited hum of the committee’s doctors. He then mimed the action of virus-slaying with a spatula and a gavel he’d removed from his disk’s seemingly bottomless storage compartment.
Though Chairman Santé had been distractedly applying hydrocortisone to his inflamed skin, his alert, colorless eyes darted to Mr. Montecorvino’s gavel. Reminded of his own dinky lobster mallet, the twin forces of jealousy and anger brought the Chairman once more to his full (unimpressive) stature.
“How dare you imitate my authority!” squawked Dr. Santé. Fury infecting his every limb, the Chairman wildly flapped his short arms at his side, as if doing so might elevate him to a more imposing height.
At this point, the hungry tigers could no longer ignore the parallels between the chairman and the savory birds of their dreams. Had the lead tiger the opportunity to state his case, his refinement would have floored the hearing room. But now, rapacity devoured his noble intentions: He viciously pounced onto the chairman’s chest, in unison with his siblings. Though they would return to the Bronx Zoo without a vaccine, much to the chagrin of the apes and elephants, the tigers would at least be well fed: Ms. Summer Bliss, still ensnared in her own gown, would make for easy prey. At the very least, the influencer would not die in vain: The multipurpose ultraviolet lights she’d been hired to promote would soon be trending as college dorm room decor.
As the beasts gulped down her co-committee member, Dr. Klein attempted to reimpose order over the doctors, who were fleeing alongside the spectator-evacuees. (The Secretary had always rued a meeting concluded without the appropriate procedural motions.) Her efforts, however, were futile, as she was inaudible over the Chairman’s screams. Sighing, she also acknowledged that she was powerless to save her colleague, for the zoo animals could not be distracted from their feast. At the very least, Dr. Klein reasoned, she could save the meeting minutes. Scribbling a few lines onto her legal pad, she promptly exited the hearing room.
Still no early authorization vaccine candidates identified. Meeting duration: 26 minutes.