The regionality of cocci is only partly to blame for the pace of research. In the lab, cocci presents a serious hazard. Early on, laboratory infections were common; a grad student would open a petri dish and, whoosh, millions of spores would go up his nose. (After farm work, lab work was considered to have the greatest occupational risk; at Stanford, a center of valley-fever research, a group of obstetrics students got it, though their classroom was two stories above the cocci lab.) At the county public-health building in Bakersfield, I saw a slide of cocci, recovered from a patient’s sputum and fed agar, potato extract, and sugar. Angled in a test tube to reduce surface area and stored in a bio-safety cabinet (air flow, straight up), the slide was covered with a cloudy gray smear, like a spiral galaxy. “Here he is,” the lab director said. “Just looks like a little bread mold. He’s making arthrospores in there, and if we opened it we’d just get a little invisible cloud of infectious particles.” Cocci researchers typically work in Bio Safety Level 3 labs: hepa-filtered air, seamless floors and ceilings, closed antechamber. Until last year, C. immitis was listed as a Select Agent. After culturing it, lab technicians had seven days to report to the Department of Homeland Security that it had been destroyed.
In Tucson, Galgiani took me to see the university’s Bio Safety 3 lab. In the corridor, you could hear an autoclave grinding like a hotel icemaker, sterilizing every piece of lab equipment and protective gear that came into contact with the pathogenic agents inside. In addition to cocci, the lab handles monkey pox, mouse pox, West Nile, and chikungunya, a mosquito-borne virus for which there is currently no treatment. On the wall was a group of manometers. Galgiani checked that the pressure in the rooms was lower than that in the hall: a containment strategy.
“In the nineteen-fifties, both the U.S. and the Russians had bio-warfare programs using cocci,” he said. “Generals can’t control agents that rely on air currents to disperse them, and it was difficult to use the vector precisely, so it fell out of favor. But terrorists don’t care about that stuff—all they care about is perception. A single cell can cause disease, and you can genetically modify it to make it more powerful.” He held up his wallet to a sensor by the door, then put his finger on a fingerprint reader. “The atrium is as far as we get,” he said as we stepped inside. “When you work like this, everything slows down, for safety reasons. It’s a harder kind of research to do.”
Because Valley Fever is endemic to the Antelope Valley, and most dangerous in fall, during windy times and after the summer's heat, I'm going to walk Section D of the Pacific Crest Trail in January. (Helps that we're in the midst of a drought, so snow is not a factor.) Will be gone for a week. Wish me luck.