PRESIDENT BREWER LOOKED up from the four-page bound report we had both just been handed, explaining that it was a joint CIA/Homeland Security briefing finished about an hour ago. I was surprised when they handed it to me; I didn’t hold any security clearance – at least none I was aware of. But Suit Two had opened the Roosevelt Room door after a knock and handed two copies of the report to the President, who handed me one. Suit Two stayed inside and closed the door. There was an awkward silence while I read a report that the Vice President, standing almost next to me, didn’t have.
The report began with a summary of Dr. Ramirez’s leaked paper and followed with a paragraph on the state of worldwide research on antioxidant health benefits. Then the report opined that there was a 27% chance that the formula (Dr. Ramirez had called it the ‘Ponce Factor’ in his paper) was real and would actually work to stop, or almost stop, all free radical cell damage and DNA degradation in humans. How the hell they came up with a 27% chance I had no idea, but I was not about to ask. Next there were two paragraphs on the wisdom and legality of the U.S. Government seizing the formula, if it existed (probably not legal but recommended anyway). Then came the scary part. The next to last page of the report was an analysis of the short-term effects of the Ponce Factor on America and the world. The cliff notes version of that analysis is – very, very bad. Civil unrest. Economic disruption. But that read much better than the last page, which was the analysis of the mid-to-long term effects, were the Ponce Factor to be real. It made the short-term effects look like Candyland.
Homeland Security believed, at this preliminary stage, that if the Ponce Factor wase proven to stop aging in humans, and it was widely (but not universally) available, that civilization as we knew it would rather quickly disintegrate. Catastrophic consequences to Social Security, Medicare and a dozen other public and private programs. Healthy people who took Ponce would likely have their life extended by many years, perhaps centuries, requiring strict, draconian population controls to be instituted not just in the U.S., but worldwide. Many or most social and governmental institutions would fail. Economies would fall into chaos, with a majority of major large-scale economic participants no longer functioning – life and health insurance and pension investments would be among the first to collapse. Large-scale civil unrest would result in the overthrow of governments worldwide, being replaced by something very different, although the report stopped short of guessing what. In short — worldwide chaos, followed by nobody knows what, but something very different and very, very messy.
Brewer looked up at me from the report, his face a blank
question. My voice had just a slight tremor and was about a half octave too high. “Mr. President, I don’t think we know nearly enough at this point to jump to these conclusions.”
“So what do you think it means?” he asked point blank.
“First, I don’t believe it’s true. Even Homeland estimates a three- out-of-four chance it won’t be effective.”
The President jumped in as if lecturing a school child. “But Medgar, it’s our job – my job – to prepare as if it is true. They’re telling me there’s a one-quarter chance the United States of America as we know it is going to vanish and you think we should do nothing?”
“No sir, that’s not what I mean at all. I just don’t want any of us to jump to the conclusion that all this is true. Of course I understand we have to prepare for the worst, to the extent that is even possible. But I don’t agree with a lot of what is in this report even if the Ponce Factor is real.
“Explain,” said the President. He really was rather blunt. Or maybe just short on time.
“Let’s start with the idea that everyone on earth would want it. I don’t think so. Even if they did, or most did, they are not going to be able to get it. Even if government seized the formula and ramped up production the maximum extent possible, there isn’t any way to make enough of this for everyone everywhere anytime in the near future. And for millions of people it wouldn’t matter – we can’t forget about the hundreds of deadly communicable diseases that are completely unrelated to free radicals or DNA. Some of the greatest killers worldwide won’t be touched by this. Just malaria, tuberculosis and HIV kill almost six million people a year. Add in dysentery, pneumonia and measles and you have “The Big Six” that kill 90% of the people in the world that die from infectious disease. The Ponce Factor isn’t going to help them. Simple traffic accidents kill another million or more every year, and seriously injure another 50 million. Not to mention the three million or so that just died in the pandemic. So even if it is the Fountain of Youth, death isn’t going to stop.”
I hesitated for just a moment – my brain was racing now. “I’ll
tell you what it would mean, though. It would mean that our current world system of health care, which is in large part a system of the haves and the have-nots, would become even more so. Even if poor people worldwide could afford this concoction, it wouldn’t help them in the same way it would us. They are the ones that die every day of malaria and dengue fever – not us. Their children become dehydrated from dysentery because they don’t have clean water. They are the ones that can’t afford medical care when they are injured or sick. So they’ll continue to die. While some people in wealthy societies might truly be able to extend their lives for God knows how long, the poor would get sick and die just as always. We would have two worlds – those who die, and those who don’t. And I know you have a lot of things to think about, but what scares me the most about this whole science fiction scenario is that there are a good many people out there who would be perfectly fine with that.”