A Misleading C.D.C. Number
When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidelines last month for mask wearing, it announced that “less than 10 percent” of Covid-19 transmission was occurring outdoors. Media organizations repeated the statistic, and it quickly became a standard description of the frequency of outdoor transmission.
But the number is almost certainly misleading.
It appears to be based partly on a misclassification of some Covid transmission that actually took place in enclosed spaces (as I explain below). An even bigger issue is the extreme caution of C.D.C. officials, who picked a benchmark — 10 percent — so high that nobody could reasonably dispute it.
That benchmark “seems to be a huge exaggeration,” as Dr. Muge Cevik, a virologist at the University of St. Andrews, said. In truth, the share of transmission that has occurred outdoors seems to be below 1 percent and may be below 0.1 percent, multiple epidemiologists told me. The rare outdoor transmission that has happened almost all seems to have involved crowded places or close conversation.
Saying that less than 10 percent of Covid transmission occurs outdoors is akin to saying that sharks attack fewer than 20,000 swimmers a year. (The actual worldwide number is around 150.) It’s both true and deceiving.
The Player Queen
Dench came of age just as the definitions of femininity were being rewritten, and she was an incarnation of the freewheeling, bumptious independence of the eternally young New Woman. With a cap of close-cropped hair, a strong chin, high cheekbones, big alert eyes, and a wide smile, the five-foot-two Dench cut a gamine figure onstage. Zeffirelli still thinks of her as “a kind of irresistible bombshell.” He says, “She was funny and witty and biting. You had to be very careful what you said because she would answer back promptly. She was a dynamo, this girl. She just was an extraordinary surprise, because I was accustomed to Peggy Ashcroft and Dorothy Tutin, that style of acting.”
David Jones, who directed one of the high-water marks of Dench’s TV career, “Langrishe, Go Down” (1978), remembers her quicksilver quality in Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet.” He describes her “darting—like a bird coming onto the stage and going off again. You weren’t quite aware of the feet touching the ground, this extraordinary agility of body and of mind.” Dench’s kinetic quality onstage finds different but no less startling expression in film. “She has a kind of sprung dynamic with her eyes,” John Madden says. “They don’t move gradually and settle or shift. They dart, then dart back, then settle again on the place that they just avoided looking at. It’s almost like a double take, which suggests a kind of current flowing in an opposite direction from what she is saying.”
When you meet Dench, it’s hard not to feel the engine running inside her. She’s nervy. Her fingers play across her lips; her feet tap under the table. Her lightness and quickness are very much a part of her metabolism as an actress and lend credibility to her performances. “She is the perfect Shakespearean, because the great characters in Shakespeare have fantastic speed of thought,” Nunn says. “They have speed of wit, speed of response, speed of invention of the image. That only works if the actor convinces the audience that that language is being coined by that brain in that situation.” He adds, “You live in the moment with her. There’s never a sense that she’s doing a recitation.”
Dench’s combination of insight and inspiration, charisma and cunning has made her one of Britain’s two marquee players whose names guarantee West End commercial success. (Her friend Dame Maggie Smith is the other.) Even with the drastic fall-off of tourism after September 11th, “The Royal Family” had half a million pounds in advance bookings, and, despite a tepid press, is still doing brisk business. Dench’s drawing power, for which she is paid a five-figure salary every week, plus up to ten per cent of the gross, has been greatly enhanced since the mid-nineties by her emergence as an international film star. Before being touched by what she calls “the luck of John Madden,” who directed her in both “Shakespeare in Love” and “Mrs. Brown,” Dench had not shown much interest in films, though she’d appeared in twelve. When she was starting out, she was told by an industry swami that she didn’t have “a movie face.” “It put me completely off,” says Dench, who nonetheless nearly got the starring role in Tony Richardson’s 1961 film “A Taste of Honey.” “But then I only ever really loved the stage. It’s only recently that I’ve got to like film so much.” For the last three James Bond films, Dench’s severe side has been siphoned off into M, Bond’s no-nonsense boss; and among the fifty-five awards she lists in her bio are three Oscar nominations in the past four years—for “Mrs. Brown,” “Shakespeare in Love,” and “Chocolat.” (The command and wit of her seven-minute cameo as Elizabeth I in “Shakespeare in Love” earned her the 1999 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.)
Among theatre people, Dench’s popularity is a source of some curmudgeonly grousing—”If she farted, they’d give her an award,” one playwright said—and some good jokes. Eyre recounted a conversation he once had with the playwright Alan Bennett, who had seen a man wearing a heavy-metal-style T-shirt that read “Hitler: The European Tour.” They tried to imagine a T-shirt in worse taste. Recalling the thirty-nine Turin soccer fans who had been killed at a match against Liverpool in 1995, Eyre suggested “Liverpool 39-Turin 0.” “Yes, that’s ghastly,” Eyre recalls Bennett saying. “But the worst-taste T-shirt, the very, very worst, would be ‘I Hate Judi Dench.’ “
One clue to Dench’s appeal is her husky voice, which has a natural catch in it; certain notes fail to operate. When Dench was at the Nottingham Playhouse in the mid-sixties, she had the box office display a notice that said, “Judi Dench is not ill, she just talks like this.” Dench’s sound is idiosyncratic but not mannered; it is full of intimations that, as Alan Bennett says, “open you up to whatever she’s doing” and allow various interpretations. Sir Ian McKellen, who has performed with Dench in four plays, most memorably as Macbeth to her Lady Macbeth, calls it “a little girl’s voice—the crack suggests she’s not in control.”
Another reason for Dench’s popularity is her warmth. She communicates a palpable, deep-seated generosity. “You feel somehow, even as a member of the audience, that if you were in trouble she would help you and laugh you out of it,” Hall says. Dench pays close attention to her audience. During the half hour before a show, she keeps the loudspeakers in her dressing room turned up, both to take the measure of the house and to pump up her adrenaline. “I have to hear the audience coming in,” she says. “I need to be generated by it—for the jump-off. It’s like a quickie ignition.” Once, an American student asked Dench if the audience made a difference to her; Dench replied, “If it didn’t make a difference, I’d be at home with me feet up the chimney. That’s who I’m doing it for.” “It’s a little unnerving when you’re working with her,” McKellen says. “What’s happening is that she’s making love to the audience—not making love but providing the focus of attention to an audience that wants to love. You could be wrapped in Judi’s arms onstage and acting as closely with her as possible, and she’s capable of betraying you, because her main reason for being in your arms is for the audience’s delectation. It isn’t upstaging. That isn’t taking away the focus. Her spirit is flowing, and it’s a decision she’s made that it will flow. And when I’m in the audience I want her to do that.”
In performance, Dench is a minimalist: no gesture or movement is wasted. Richard Eyre refers to what he calls her “third eye”: “It’s the ability to walk on fire and yet be completely unburnt, to be red-hot with passion and at the same time there’s this third eye that is looking down thinking, Am I doing this right?” Billy Connolly told me about filming one scene in “Mrs. Brown”: In the first meeting between the widowed Queen Victoria and her Scottish manservant, John Brown, Brown’s forthrightness catches the Queen off guard. “Honest to God, I never thought to see you in such a state,” Brown says. “You must miss him dreadfully.” In an astonishing closeup, the austere formality of Dench’s visage suddenly transforms—a cloud of grief sweeps over her and she breaks up. “Judi did that twelve times,” Connolly says. “Every time, I thought I’d really wounded her. You see me looking all bewildered. Well, I actually was.”
”Dench has a kind of glamour when she performs,” says Hal Prince, who directed her as Sally Bowles in “Cabaret” in 1968 and considers her “the most effective of all the people who played the part.” Glamour—the word has its root in the Scottish word for “grammar”—is an artifice of elegant coherence; it requires distance. Dench, who is no Garbo or Dietrich, manufactures this not through stage-managed aloofness but through a natural sense of containment. David Jones says, “Her gift is to step down the throttle, so you don’t get the full impact of her passion; you just know there’s an enormous amount in reserve. It’s like a wave suspended.” McKellen observes, “She goes out, but she doesn’t always invite you in.”
On a bright July morning, Dench picked me up outside Gatwick Airport to ferry me back to Wasp Green. She arrived with a story—one that she retold three times during the day. She hadn’t known what I looked like, she said—though I later noticed on her desk a book I’d sent her with my jacket photo prominently displayed—and she’d stopped two men before I loomed up in her windshield. “I slowed down and this man says, ‘I know you. Are you with American Airlines?’ “ she said. At a stroke, she had levelled the playing field, by making herself appear just an ordinary, unrecognized citizen. The story got us talking and laughing. Disarming others is one of Dench’s great social gifts, and one of her most skillful defenses. “She was successful very young,” Eyre says. “She developed some sort of tactic that stopped people from disliking her.”
As a diva Dench is something of a disappointment. Her dislike of public display—what Branagh calls her “puritanical scrutiny of anything showy”—can be attributed at least in part to the tenets of her faith. She was introduced to Quaker practice as a teen-ager at the Mount School, and she still goes to Quaker meetings. “I have to have quietness inside me somewhere, otherwise I’d burn myself up,” she said in a recent television interview. Quakerism requires its followers to look for the light in others, as well as in themselves, and this, in a way, explains Dench’s view of acting as a service industry. “It’s a very unselfish job,” she says. “It’s about being true to an author, a director, a group of people, and stimulating a different audience every night. If you’re out for self-glorification, then you’re in the wrong profession.”
”There are a lot of people who are very willing to put my mother on a pedestal, which is a lonely existence,” Finty says. “She wants to dispute that so much that she will literally do anything for anybody.” For twelve years, Dench and Williams lived with all of their in-laws in one house, and Dench is a legendary sender of postcards and birthday cards; by Finty’s reckoning, she gives about four hundred and fifty Christmas presents a year. She once gave Eyre a wooden heart carved from a tree trunk; and, for as long as Hall can remember, on his birthday Dench has managed to have delivered—as far afield as Australia—his favorite meal: oysters, French fries, and a bottle of Sancerre. “Comes my seventieth birthday, and there’s no oysters, no Sancerre,” Hall says. “I said to my wife, ‘Well, I must be off the list.’ We had my dinner”—a party for fifty, with Dench at his side—”and there’s a Doulton china plate from Judi, specially made, with six oysters and chips painted on it.”
This hubbub of good will and connection, however, skirts the issue of intimacy. “Judi has always found safety in numbers,” says David Jones, who was involved with her briefly in his twenties. “When we were dating, I would arrange what I thought was a one-on-one meeting to go to a museum or the theatre. Quite often, I would turn up and find two other people invited. And Judi would say, ‘Isn’t it fun? They’re free! They can come with us.’ “ Some of Dench’s schoolmates, like the writer Margaret Drabble, found her buoyancy “a little Panglossian.” Even Dench’s husband, a man prone to the kind of melancholy that he called “black-dog days,” and which could stretch into months, sent up her effervescence. “With Judi, it’s bloody Christmas morning every day,” he told Branagh.
”I’m a person who off-loads an enormous amount onto people,” Dench told me. “Inside, there’s a core that I won’t off-load.” According to Finty, Dench “doesn’t like to talk about very emotional things,” but throughout our day together at Wasp Green her gallant cheer was tested by small unsettling moments. Although her charm never faltered, I was left with mixed messages, as if I had wandered into some Chekhovian scenario full of distressing secrets. Our extended conversation at a garden table on the lawn was interrupted first by a series of visitors (the mailman, a next-door neighbor, and two secretaries, each of whom got Dench’s full attention), then by phone calls from Anthony Page and Peter Hall, then by someone delivering a single pink rose (I learned later that it was from Finty—carrying on Williams’s tradition of having a single red rose sent to Dench every Friday of their marriage), then by Dench’s need to feed the herd of cats, and then by a panic over a credit card that might or might not have been stolen.
Finally, and most perplexingly, Finty, who moved back into her parents’ house when Michael fell ill, walked over unbidden with a provocative and bewildering announcement. “Your granddaughter is being played by an eighteen-year-old,” she said. Dench’s bright face collapsed. “Oh, Finty, I’m so sorry.” “It’s all right,” Finty said, with a wave of her hand. “I’m all right.” She turned back to the house, leaving her mother to struggle with her obvious disappointment. After a while, Dench said, “It’ll be for a very good reason.” Then, finally, she explained: “ ‘The Royal Family.’ She saw Peter.” Finty, who had recently finished filming in Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park,” had hoped for a part in the play.
A few minutes later, Finty came out again to say goodbye. “It doesn’t matter about that, you know,” Dench said. “It doesn’t matter.” Finty agreed. “She’s only a little eighteen-year-old, and maybe it’s her first job. Maybe she’ll be celebrating with someone and getting very excited,” she said. “Maybe you will have something else to do, you never know,” Dench said. “Never know,” Finty said, nodding. “My audition’s been cancelled on Tuesday.” There was a long, fierce silence as she exited for the second time. “It’s impossible being the child of an actor,” Dench said. A certain gravity fell across her face as she seemed to push down feelings of remorse and guilt and got on with the professional task at hand.
Onstage, Dench has found her bliss; offstage, that bliss has cast a shadow on others—on her brother Jeffrey (“There is jealousy,” he admits. “She’s had the breaks. I’m a jobbing actor. You know that niggles”), on Michael (“In some way, his heart was broken by Judi’s success,” Eyre says), and now on Finty, who seemed, in a way that neither of them quite acknowledged or understood, both to adore her mother and to wish to subvert her. A few months later, Finty told me a story that reminded me of this. While she and Dench were watching television together one night, Finty said, “Oh, I think Kylie Minogue”—the Australian pop singer and former soap-opera star—”is so talented.” According to Finty, Dench got “massively uptight. ‘Define “so talented,” ‘ she said. ‘She’s a singer, isn’t she? She looks good.’ She got really cross with me. She was, like, ‘If you think that’s talented, what are you aspiring to?’ “
In her time, Dench has been serenaded by Gerry Mulligan from beneath her New York hotel window. She has watched, in West Africa, as, at the finale of “Twelfth Night,” people in the audience threw their programs into the air, then jumped to their feet to sing and dance for several minutes. She has clowned with the comedians Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise. She has locked herself in a bathroom with Maggie Smith to escape the advances of the English comic character actor Miles Malleson. She has refused Billy Connolly’s offer to show her his pierced nipples. As for her own nipples, she has stood in front of the camera, naked to the waist and unabashed, dabbing meringue on them. She has cooled herself on a summer day by jumping fully clothed into a swimming pool. At Buckingham Palace, she has scuttled away from the ballroom with Ian McKellen to sit on the royal thrones. In a Dublin restaurant, when Harold Pinter, a theatrical royal, barked about the tardiness of their dinner, Dench, according to David Jones, actually barked back, “Mr. Pinter, you are not in London. Would you please adjust.” She has made David Hare a needlepoint pillow as a Mother’s Day present, with the words “Fuck Off” intricately stitched into the tapestry. On the day she became Dame Judi, Dench pinned her D.B.E. insignia on the jacket of the actor playing Don Pedro in a production of “Much Ado About Nothing” that she was directing. It is a barometer of her louche and lively life that, not long after that, the first ten rows of the National’s Lyttelton Theatre heard Michael Bryant, who was playing Enobarbus to her Cleopatra, say to Dench under his breath, “I suppose a fuck is well out of the question now?”
Still, as Zeffirelli says, “She has known suffering.” At the corner of her Surrey property is a rowan tree, planted on an exact axis with the back door of the house, which, according to folklore, is supposed to protect the house from witches; it has not been able to protect Dench from the caprices of life. Soon after Michael died, in January, an electrical fault in the garage—an old barn—started a fire that gutted it to the frame. That charred skeleton is the first thing that rolls into view as you enter the property, and it stands in eerie contrast to the tranquillity behind it—wisteria by the front door, a sundial, a swimming pool, a flotilla of plastic slides and Winnie-the-Pooh toys tucked underneath the warped cantilevered timbers of the porch. Seven years earlier, Dench’s house in Hampstead had burned down and a lifetime’s memorabilia went up in flames. And in 1997, in a weird instance of life imitating art, Dench, like her character Esme in “Amy’s View,” which she was rehearsing at the time, learned that Finty, then twenty-five, was eight months pregnant and hadn’t told her. She went immediately to Eyre’s office at the National. “She stood in the doorway and just collapsed,” he recalls. “She exploded. I’d never seen that. Unbelievably painful. She was massively wounded that the person she had thought of as her best friend in the world had not confided in her the not insignificant fact of her pregnancy.” (Finty hadn’t wanted Michael, a conservative Catholic, to know that she was having an illegitimate child.) Nevertheless, rehearsals of “Amy’s View” went on. Eyre says of Dench, “Deep within her is the ethos that you don’t let people down. If you’re an actor, you go on. As Tennessee Williams says, you endure by enduring. “
On July 9th of last year, a muggy Monday, at St. Paul’s Church in Covent Garden, a standing-room-only crowd heard Trevor Nunn eulogize Michael Williams as a fine actor and partner. “I remember them courting,” he said, standing opposite an enlarged photo of Williams, who was five feet four and puckishly handsome. “When they got married, Mike said to me, he was in the grip of feelings ‘beyond any happiness he had ever dreamed of.’ He told me more than once that his favorite line in Shakespeare was ‘You have bereft me of all words, lady.’ Because when he was with Jude, he knew the full extent of what Shakespeare was saying.”
By the time Dench and Williams were married, in 1971, when she was thirty-six, Dench had done a lot of living. “When she likes something, she wants it like a wild animal,” Zeffirelli says. Eyre adds, “She was prodigiously falling in love with the wrong man.” One such man was the late comic actor Leonard Rossiter, who was in another relationship when they had an affair. “Some days, she’d come in and she’d had a wonderful day with him,” recalls McKellen, who was then co-starring with her in “The Promise.” “Other times, he’d have to leave early or hadn’t turned up, and she was desperate. Tears, tears, tears. She was helpless and hopeless. What I was seeing was utterly vulnerable.”
In 1969, on an R.S.C. tour of Australia, Charlie Thomas, a talented young actor with a drinking problem, who was playing the lovelorn Orsino to Dench’s Viola, died under mysterious circumstances. Thomas had been very dependent on Dench, Nunn told me. “It was a shattering situation,” he said. Williams, who was also a member of the R.S.C. and had become, in Nunn’s words, “probably more than a friend,” flew out to comfort her. “What was between them deepened enormously during that time,” Nunn says. “Mike arriving made a fantastic difference.” On that trip, Williams proposed, but Dench demurred. “No, it’s too romantic here, with the sun and the sea and the sand,” Williams remembered her saying. “Ask me on a rainy night in Battersea and I’ll think about it.” One rainy night in Battersea, in 1970, she said yes.
Williams, who came from Liverpool, had a more working-class pedigree than Dench, and he had the right combination of sturdiness and faith to both tether Dench and contain what her agent calls the “Dizzy Dora” side of her personality. “Michael was all-calming,” Dench says. By every account, they were good companions. Dench recalls, “He used to say of himself, because he was Cancerian—the crab—and I’m a Sagittarian, ‘I’m scuttling away toward the dark, and you’re scuttling toward the light. What we do is we hold hands and keep ourselves in the middle.’ “
The Gene Factory
The twenty-mile drive from Hong Kong International Airport to the center of Shenzhen, in southern China, can take hours. There is customs to negotiate and a border to cross, but they aren’t the problem; the problem is the furious pace of commerce between the former British colony and one of the fastest-growing cities in the world. Trucks, cars, vans, and buses cram the roadways, ferrying laborers of all kinds at all times. Until the nineteen-eighties, when Deng Xiaoping designated the area as China’s first special economic zone, Shenzhen had been a tiny fishing village. Suddenly, eleven million people appeared, seemingly out of nowhere; factories sprang up, often housed in hastily constructed tower blocks.
B.G.I. is sifting through the DNA in a hunt for biological clues to what makes intellectually gifted people so smart. Illustration by Paul Rogers
Thirty years ago, there were a few guesthouses and little else. Today, a visitor can stay at the Four Seasons or the Ritz, shop for ten-thousand-dollar handbags at Hermès, and move around town in a chauffeured Bentley. Yet Shenzhen has remained a factory town. At various times, the city has served as China’s Detroit, its garment district, and its Silicon Valley. Now, as the world’s scientists focus with increasing intensity on transforming the genetic codes of every living creature into information that can be used to treat and ultimately prevent disease, Shenzhen is home to a different kind of factory: B.G.I., formerly called Beijing Genomics Institute, the world’s largest genetic-research center. With a hundred and seventy-eight machines to sequence the precise order of the billions of chemicals within a molecule of DNA, B.G.I. produces at least a quarter of the world’s genomic data—more than Harvard University, the National Institutes of Health, or any other scientific institution.
Much of modern molecular biology and microbiology has been based on the effort to decipher the basic code of life, which is made up of four nucleotides: adenine, thymine, cytosine, and guanine. Specific strings of those molecules—there are three billion pairs in the human genome—are arranged together to make genes; genes, in turn, produce the proteins that we need to survive. Since 1995, when Craig Venter sequenced the first bacterium, biologists have been on a crusade to catalogue the DNA of nearly every species on earth. No group has been more aggressive in its attempt to produce those maps than B.G.I.: the company has already processed the genomes of fifty-seven thousand people. B.G.I. also has sequenced many strains of rice, the cucumber, the chickpea, the giant panda, the Arabian camel, the yak, a chicken, and forty types of silkworm. None of those endeavors are quite as odd as they may seem. Genomic research has shown that the human activity responsible for climate change has also caused a serious decline in the panda population. Silkworms have played a central role in the Chinese economy for thousands of years. B.G.I. has also sequenced the Tibetan antelope, the coronavirus responsible for SARS, and the DNA of a four-thousand-year-old man, known as Inuk, obtained from a tuft of his hair that was discovered in Greenland’s permafrost.
The company’s four thousand employees operate out of an eight-story former shoe factory on the eastern edge of Shenzhen, not far from the inlet to the South China Sea. Sequencing facilities are sterile places, and the B.G.I. operation looks more like a call center or the back office of a bank than like the home of China’s most important biotechnology company. There are no test tubes or vials of blood on display, no mice or rats, or even much traditional laboratory space. Instead, there are a series of advanced sequencing arrays, taller than refrigerators and stacked with hard drives, churning through the carefully packaged DNA samples that arrive every day from every part of the world. To preserve the chemicals needed to process that DNA, the machines are kept in frigid rooms that few people are permitted to enter. Racks of parkas line the corridors, where hundreds of determined young men and women—the average age of B.G.I. employees is twenty-six—occupy identical powder-blue cubicles, each bathed in the eerie glow of their computer monitors.
“You creative types—it’s always something.” Facebook
B.G.I., much like Shenzhen itself, seems to have been formed in a single instant: September 9, 1999, at nine seconds after 9:19 A.M. (In China, even dispassionate scientists crave auspicious beginnings.) The group got its start in Beijing, first as a nonprofit organization and then as an affiliate of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. But as Jian Wang, the company’s president, and one of its founders, told me recently, “We were too crazy for them’’—too independent. “We were kicked out.’’ At fifty-nine, Wang, with gently graying hair on a perfectly round head, and dressed in an olive-drab B.G.I. camping shirt and matching pants, looks like an avuncular Zhou Enlai. He considers B.G.I.’s expulsion from the academy to have been an essential component of the company’s success. The founders, Wang and sixty-one-year-old Huanming Yang, who is now the chairman, had both received advanced training in the West. They were eager for China to play a role in the Human Genome Project, the effort to create the blueprint needed to decode all our genes. They tried, and failed, to persuade the Chinese government to establish a sequencing center. So they created a company of their own, raising enough capital to hire nearly fifty researchers and buy a few basic machines. At first, the scientists worked out of a crowded apartment in Beijing. Their furniture consisted of the cardboard shipping boxes that had contained their new equipment. The group was responsible for only about one per cent of the research that went into the genome project. In 2000, however, when Bill Clinton announced that a rough draft of the genome had been completed, he made a point of thanking China. B.G.I. may well have been the first organization in the country’s history to participate in an international scientific collaboration.
“It wasn’t a big role, but it got us started,’’ Wang told me when we met in Shenzhen, where the company established its headquarters in 2007. (It now operates sequencing centers throughout the world. It opened a facility in Shanghai on November 11, 2011: 11/11/11, at eleven seconds after 11:11 A.M.) Despite the company’s limited involvement, the Human Genome Project provided the two men access to the world’s most accomplished geneticists. Today, the list of scientists whom B.G.I. counts as advisers reads like a Double Helix Hall of Fame: James Watson, who, with Francis Crick, discovered the structure of DNA; Eric Lander, one of the genome project’s leaders, and the director of the Broad Institute, of M.I.T. and Harvard; and John Sulston, a Nobel Prize winner (as is Watson) and the founder of one of the world’s largest genomic-research centers, Britain’s Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. It took more than a decade, and three billion dollars, for a team of international experts to map the first human genome. Since then, the costs have decreased so rapidly that B.G.I., with its relatively cheap and plentiful labor force, can do that same work in a few days for about four thousand dollars. By the end of next year, Wang told me, the price of sequencing a genome will fall below a thousand dollars. Driven largely by those plummeting costs, B.G.I. intends to transform DNA into a common resource, a kind of universal reference library—freely accessible, wary scientists hope, to anyone who wants to use it.
The order of the four chemicals in each molecule of DNA determines the physical characteristics of every living organism, and sequencing those molecules has made it possible for scientists to begin to identify causal connections between diseases and genes. But a sequencing machine without software is about as useful as a laptop with no operating system. It works essentially like a molecular version of a paper shredder, cutting up immense strings of genetic information, then spitting them out in fragmented piles. Each string produced by a sequencing machine is referred to as a “read,” and thousands of overlapping reads are created for every genome. Researchers, relying on software that analyzes patterns, stitch those reads into comprehensible units. At B.G.I., when DNA samples arrive—usually on FedEx trucks—workers check to make sure they are packed properly in dry ice. Then they are taken to a quality-control area, where they are prepared for analysis. Most DNA samples sent to B.G.I. from labs around the world are processed in Hong Kong; Shenzhen focusses on submissions and research projects from within China.
The company has bet its future on laying out the genetic codes of as many life-forms as possible. While I was in Shenzhen, I saw a display that described B.G.I.’s plans, which include the Million Human Genomes Project, the Million Plant and Animal Genomes Project, and the Million Microecosystem Genomes Project. “It’s like fishing,’’ Wang said, explaining the philosophy behind it all. “You can stick a pole in the water and try to find the fish one at a time. But what we are doing is drying out the ocean. Then we can count all the fish at once.’’
The company says that the data will help explain the origins and the evolution of humanity, improve our average life span by five years, increase global food production by ten per cent, decode half of all genetic diseases, understand the origins of autism, and cut birth defects by fifty per cent. It’s an audacious list, but sequencing has become an industrial process, and, as an assembly line, B.G.I. has no peer. “In Chinese, we have a saying: Reach for the top of the sky,’’ Ming Qi, the health division’s chief scientist, told me when we met in a small café on the top floor of the headquarters. Qi, the founding director of the Center for Genetic and Genomic Medicine, at Zhejiang University, was a protégé of Tan Jiazhen, who is widely regarded as “the father of Chinese genetics.” Qi acknowledged the company’s outsized ambitions, but said, “We want to translate all these scientific findings into our daily lives, including our economy, industry, health, and environment.”
“Well, I’ll be—we just spent all weekend planning to rob a façade.” Facebook
B.G.I.’s finances are murky, but it makes its money in several ways. The company provides data analysis to pharmaceutical firms, sequences genomes of individuals for researchers, and has been hired by the American advocacy group Autism Speaks to sequence the DNA of ten thousand people from families with children who have some form of autism-spectrum disorder. For scientists in Denmark who are studying the genetics of obesity and diabetes, B.G.I. has decoded the genomes of a thousand obese people and a thousand healthy people. The company also had a central part in the duck-genome consortium, along with colleagues from Britain and from other Chinese institutes. (Ducks are a common host of influenza viruses, and a better understanding of their genetics could greatly increase the pace of vaccine development.) B.G.I. offers a popular, noninvasive test for Down syndrome that analyzes fetal DNA circulating in the mother’s blood. The test can be performed in the tenth week of pregnancy. (Amniocentesis, the standard diagnostic, is an invasive procedure that cannot be carried out until at least the fifteenth week; in rare cases, the needle required to remove DNA for examination causes infection or miscarriage.)
The goals of such projects have not been challenged. But the company has also embarked upon studies that Western scientists have trouble even discussing. Foremost among them is the Cognitive Genomics project, an attempt to explore, in more complex ways than ever before, the genetic basis for human intelligence. Wang understands the ethical concerns raised by this kind of research and knows that discussing the subject makes many people uncomfortable. But he believes the worries are misguided. “Some words are too sensitive to say, but there has to be at least some genetic component behind the differences people show,’’ he told me. Wang is a mountain climber and a serious amateur photographer, and large prints of his Himalayan landscapes are scattered throughout B.G.I.’s offices. “In the United States and in the West, you have a certain way,’’ he continued, smiling and waving his arms merrily. “You feel you are advanced and you are the best. Blah, blah, blah. You follow all these rules and have all these protocols and laws and regulations. You need somebody to change it. To blow it up. For the last five hundred years, you have been leading the way with innovation. We are no longer interested in following.”
I arrived in Shenzhen the day after Typhoon Usagi had shut down much of Southeast Asia. Shops were closed, and cars inched along the sodden roads, but B.G.I. never missed a moment’s activity, in part because many of its staff live in dormitories not far from the main building. The company is arranged like a campus, though not one on which people seem to roam freely. Unlike Western research facilities, such as the National Institutes of Health, B.G.I.’s headquarters has no easily identified guards, no place to sign in, and no noticeable security cameras. While I was there, trying to find my way through the maze of identical cubicles that fill the cavernous first floor, I met Gengyun Zhang, an agricultural expert who is in charge of the company’s growing life-sciences division; he was dressed casually in a zippered yellow sport shirt. In 2011, Zhang led a team that sequenced foxtail millet, and B.G.I. has big plans for the esoteric grain. “You know what Chairman Mao said about millet,’’ Zhang said. I didn’t. “‘With millet plus rifles we will emerge victorious.’ ” (I learned later that he was referring to a speech that Mao delivered in 1955, aimed at the U.S., called “The Chinese People Cannot Be Cowed by the Atom Bomb.”)
Like many of the company’s leaders, Zhang, a reserved man with thin hair and deep black eyes, was educated in the United States, earning his doctorate from the department of plant biology and pathology at Rutgers University. He invited me to lunch, and we ate in a small room adjacent to the main dining area. It might have been the cafeteria at Stuyvesant High School, given the age of the workers. Except for the sounds of hundreds of people eating, however, the room was nearly silent. At B.G.I., there are none of the frills so common to technology firms in the West; I saw no lava lamps, nobody wore headphones or Crocs or moved through the building on a skateboard, a pogo stick, or a unicycle. When the workday ends, the employees stand up and, many hand in hand, walk out toward the giant dormitory next door. “It’s like ‘Friends,’ for thousands of people,’’ Wang Aizhu, a B.G.I. press official, said. She explained that “Friends” is popular in China. (While the living conditions are hardly extravagant, they are nowhere near as austere as those which have been found at Foxconn, the company nearby that makes iPhones for Apple—where, owing to many recent suicides, management has installed protective netting around several of the buildings.)