The Next Pandemic Might Not Be Natural
Conspiracy theories and pseudoscience have left the United States fatally unprepared for real biological warfare.
Was the new coronavirus cooked up in a lab? That’s the current conspiracy theory spreading across the globe. From Iran to Russia to the United States, conspiracy theorists and scheming political operatives are making wild accusations with absolutely no evidence to back them up, whether they blame Chinese researchers or the U.S. military. At present, all the data suggests that this virus—which has sickened more than 2.4 million people, killed over 167,000, devastated the entire world economy, and pulled off a trick the Soviet Navy only dreamed of by neutralizing a U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carrier—originated in the natural world. But what if the next one doesn’t?
Germs have killed more people than all the wars in history, and people have been trying to make use of them throughout all those wars. Even before humans knew about the existence of microbes, they fumbled about with infected arrowheads, catapulted plague corpses, and, most infamously, dispatched smallpox-soaked blankets. While the scientific revolution helped humans battle these horrible diseases, it also helped them inflict those diseases on each other, from the World War I German experiments with infecting allied livestock to the massive, and largely forgotten in the West, Japanese germ attacks on China (which may have caused upwards of 200,000 deaths) in World War II to the colossal bioweapon stockpiles of the Cold War, which, at least in one case, caused a Soviet anthrax version of Chernobyl.
On a smaller scale, we’ve seen bioterrorist attacks in the United States, such as the Rajneeshee poisoning of restaurants in 1986 and the Amerithrax letters that were mailed in 2001 to specific targets around the country (including my then-workplace at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York). Fear of Saddam Hussein’s supposed stocks of biological weapons was one of the main causes of the disastrous Iraq War.
One of the many casualties of that debacle was the public belief in biodefense. Crying wolf, as the George W. Bush administration did with then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s famous “vial of anthrax” speech, boomeranged back in America’s face. The nation became convinced that just because Saddam didn’t have biological weapons, no one else could either.
After the Iraq War, Americans went from irrational paranoia to irrational denial. The years running up to this current coronavirus pandemic not only saw the gutting of U.S. national health institutions but also a cultural groundswell of science denial in the anti-vaccination movement.
Today the United States in particular is paying for that denial in livelihoods and lives. The warnings were clear. The danger was real. And instead of using the precious calm before the bio-storm to prepare a vulnerable population, U.S. President Donald Trump not only responded with feckless, token gestures but made a very public point of downplaying the threat of the virus as a hoax. How much damage could have been prevented had the world’s richest, most powerful nation behaved differently? How many lives could have been saved? If 9/11 was a “failure of imagination,” then history will no doubt judge the Trump administration’s response to COVID-19 as a failure of courage, compassion, and, most of all, competence.
And if the next administration doesn’t reverse course, and fast, the next pandemic, whether naturally occurring or the result of a genuine attack, could make this one look like the seasonal sniffles.
Right now, as the world struggles with a naturally occurring bug, there are still massive germ warfare stocks all around the globe. Even if we could trust that the Russians abided by the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972 and destroyed their arsenals, what about China or North Korea, which never ratified the treaty? And these are just the nation-states.
What about the terrorist groups, the nonstate actors with no land to defend and nothing to lose? In the last century, the renowned Ebola fighter Karl Johnson warned: “It’s only a matter of months—years, at most—before people nail down the genes for virulence and airborne transmission in influenza, Ebola, Lassa, you name it. And then any crackpot with a few thousand dollars’ worth of equipment and a college biology education under his belt could manufacture bugs that would make Ebola look like a walk around the park.”
Now Johnson’s prediction is right around the corner. With a little dark-web information and some secondhand lab equipment, anyone will soon be able to generate do-it-yourself blights in a basement lab and then release them back into the general population.
Genetic manipulation is the most dangerous threat humanity has ever faced because it allows anyone to spin straw into lethal gold. Unlike the hypothetical nuclear terrorist whom we’ve spent untold fortunes preparing for but who can’t act without acquiring precious, rare, and heavily guarded fissile material, the biohacker will be able to harvest germs from anywhere. And unlike the nuclear terrorist, who gets only one shot at destruction, the biohacker’s bomb can copy itself over and over again.
Obviously there is no perfect defense against the germ of the future. The fact that a lone actor could create designer bugs ensures that there will be no ready-made vaccine. But increased surveillance, a robust public health infrastructure, and, most importantly, a willingness on the part of the public to believe in front-line experts will be crucial in minimizing the damage done by a yet-to-be created bioweapon.
Yet as we’re seeing now with the coronavirus, whether born from malice or chance, the invisible enemy can hide within our ranks, multiplying in secret, planting time bombs in our bodies, and all before we know what’s hit us. Ultimately, humanity might not end with a bang but with a feeble cough.
That’s the bad news.
Here’s the good news. The world can stop it. And nobody has to develop a whole new weapons system to do it. Unlike all other means of war, where new inventions require counterinventions for protection, from bulletproof vests to anti-tank missiles, all we have to do is change our thinking. All we have to do is see public health as national security.
And we used to be really good at it. Since the 1918 influenza pandemic, humanity, particularly in the developed world, has been building networks of public health systems to detect and defend us against disease. Only recently have we allowed those networks to deteriorate, putting hucksters in charge and valuing false savings over investment in our own safety.
The United States, in particular, needs to reverse the trend. It needs to start pouring the kind of money and attention into systems like the global surveillance that it does for the F-35 jet fighter. Americans need to pay more attention to organizations like the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense that have worked tirelessly to try to warn of the threat of germ warfare. And instead of breaking ties with them in a fit of presidential pique, the United States needs to strengthen its cooperation with global health networks like the World Health Organization and reclaim leadership in the fight against microbes.
And because public health and national security are one, the United States needs to incorporate the massive might of its military. Service members have already trained for disaster situations. They’re already included in the master disaster plan of the National Response Framework. And when they’ve been able to fight, side by side, with public health professionals, as in the 2014 Operation United Assistance against Ebola, they have showed the power of defeating an enemy abroad instead of waiting for it at home.
Lastly, Americans who see the danger need to reengage the public in the fight against microscopic threats. No free and open democracy can survive without the willing support of its people. If there is any sliver of good from this tragedy, it might be the wake-up call that public health is not something to take for granted. Those in power and fighting the war on microbes need to partner with storytellers and communicators around the world, the same way Hollywood went to war in 1941. The average voter or taxpayer has to be reintroduced to science and facts to understand where sickness comes from and how to effectively combat it.
Failing to do so means surrendering the education front to the kinds of false-cure hucksters, political schemers, and pseudo-experts who gave aid and comfort to COVID-19. As dangerous as they were for today’s natural plague, they could very well be the unwitting fifth column for tomorrow’s bioterrorist.
If the world can join national and international efforts together and spend the time and money needed to rebuild the barricades of public health, then no plague, natural or engineered, will have a chance to harm us.