Imagine, for a moment, a time when the coronavirus is eradicated. There are therapies and a vaccine. Lives are spared. People will ask, How did we get here? The answer may turn on a decision, made early this year, to send sixteen vials of mouse sperm to Mount Desert Island, Maine. Much of the island is a national park, with granite peaks and rocky beaches. Tucked into the landscape is the Jackson Laboratory, a nonprofit founded, in 1929, to conduct biomedical research. It is the largest distributor of genetically engineered laboratory mice in the country, with a mouse repository that contains more than eleven thousand specimens.

On February 3rd, covid-19 was not yet officially a pandemic. There were three hundred and sixty-two reported deaths—all but one of them in China—when Cat Lutz, the director of the mouse repository, got an e-mail from a colleague who works at another Jackson facility, in Shanghai, and lives in Wuhan, the outbreak’s epicenter. When the authorities locked down his city, he was stuck at home. “It was just terrifying,” Lutz recalled. “He said, ‘I am thinking about what we can do.’ He had started combing through the literature.” Read more