Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Plague: nature's past; war's future

{ Podcast @ 9 min. } Plagues have been a nasty part of human history for a long time. Today we have antibiotics which have helped keep these nation-destroying blights at bay. However, antibiotics are a class of substances that kill or inhibit only a very specific type of organism -- bacteria:
Examples [of common antibiotics] are penicillin, tetracycline, and fluoroquinolones. Originally, antibiotics were derived from natural sources, e.g., penicillin from molds, but many currently used antibiotics are semi-synthetic and modified with additions of synthetic chemical components. Some scientists reserve the term antibiotic for naturally produced substances and use antimicrobial to encompass both synthetic and natural forms.[1]
Other kinds of plagues are viral based. Viri are described as follows:
[A]ny of a large group of very tiny infectious agents that are too small to be seen with the ordinary light microscope but can often be seen with the electron microscope, that are considered either very simple microorganisms or very complicated molecules, that have an outside coat of protein around a core of RNA or DNA[2]
Viri can grow and multiply only in living cells, so they are parasitic on more complex biological machinery already in place. Research in antiviral drugs is much inferior to what has gone before in antibiotics. "Historically, the discovery of antiviral drugs has been largely fortuitous. Spurred on by success with antibiotics, drug companies launched huge blind-screening programmes - with relatively little success."[3]

That there is not a straight-forward process for discovering antiviral drugs would make viral bio-warfare all the more problematic, since even identifying a viral agent is little guarantee that a nation could counter its effects. A sane policy of the aggressor nation would be to use a viral agent only if it has available an anti-viral "cure", though one seriously doubts even the general sanity of nations when it comes to mere bio-weapons research. For example, consider the case concerning smallpox, an extraordinarily nasty virus.

Supposedly, in 1977 the last wild smallpox virus case was located, isolated, and killed in Somalia. From that time on, there have been no occurrences of smallpox anywhere, ever. Since there is no smallpox, there is no need for a vaccination against a disease that no longer exists. Well, actually, it does still exist -- in weapons labs. At first, it existed in only two, the US and Russia. But as I earlier noted, things are never sane in these matters:
Just in case, two storage sites were permitted to keep the last surviving frozen samples of the virus. One of these sites was in the United States, the other in Russia. Needless to say, both sites had the highest biosecurity levels and were heavily guarded.. The demon might be captured and on ice, but no one doubted what would happen should it escape. In a world of unvaccinated billions with absolutely no immunity, a global apocalypse was a certainty should the virus ever reach the open air. A small laboratory freezer held prisoner a monster that could literally destroy the world. Presumably the freezer door had a padlock on it.

As you might guess, this made people a bit uneasy. Proposals were put forward to destroy these last remaining stocks. Why keep something so insanely dangerous? Various counter-arguments were put forth. Some felt that it was ethically wrong to drive any species to extinction, even a killer virus. Others felt that the value to future genetic research outweighed any hypothetical concerns about viral escape. The Clinton administration, however, seemed inclined to destroy these stocks because of their intrinsic danger. The Russians agreed.

But then reality interfered, as it often does. Intelligence reports began to indicate that the virus had been acquired by other countries, including Iraq and North Korea. Where did these countries obtain the virus? No one is sure, but one likely candidate is Russia. It turns out that, for many years, the Russian viral store was not so well-guarded after all. Through theft or bribes a few test tubes had gone missing. Once seed stock was in the hands of a rogue regime, it was easy to breed up fresh stores. In this way the demon was given a fresh lease on life.

Smallpox is just too good at killing people and thus makes a terrifyingly perfect biological weapon. Mankind couldn't pass up such an opportunity.[4]
It is well known that other microbials are stored in various pandora box bio-research sites actively operating in the US (map1), and in programs sponsored by other nation states (map2).

What would happen if an incurable, man-made plague were effectively launched in the US? I think history gives some hints about how the casualties would be handled. Naturally, there would be social unrest, especially if a vaccination was not available, or whose safety was controversial. An example of just this situation from Canada is noteworthy for smallpox outbreaks which occurred there:
The epidemic of 1885 was especially dramatic; its scale persuaded municipal authorities to make vaccination obligatory, but medical opinion divided into pro- and antivaccination camps, with the latter accusing the former of spreading the disease. The population, terrified, refused to be vaccinated. On 18 September 1885 a riot broke out in the city. People tore down provaccination posters and ransacked the home of the official medical vaccinater, the city hall, pharmacies and the homes of municipal magistrates. The extent of the catastrophe (it took 3164 lives, 2117 of them children) finally sobered Montréalers into more reasonable behaviour and they obeyed the sanitary authorities and the clergy.[5]
It strikes me that people are no more scientifically informed today than they were then. Furthermore, it appears that contemporary young people are far more tempted to anarchic action in the face of uncertainty or strongly perceived state action.[6] Such a contemporary social mindset would not be good news for law and order if a plague strike were to hit the US (military or otherwise).

Perhaps of necessity there would be required huge, off-shore boat quarantines, where people could be readily monitored and easily housed. This was what happened during the great tuberculosis outbreaks in the 1920s, for "before the discovery of specific antibiotics for the treatment of tuberculosis, there was no cure. Mortality of those with pulmonary disease (disease of the lungs) was about 50%."[7] Thus, in the event of a military strike of non-treatable plague, perhaps with a much higher mortality rate, such isolation would still be a cheap, immediate and pragmatic response today. However, if drug-resistant tuberculosis (and other pathogenic microbes) continues on its upswing, then such boat quarantines might already have become a prevalent part of national medical culture, and any subsequent war would merely demand a greater degree of nationalized commitment to an already existing flotilla of medical real estate.

Ironically, Masood Khan, of Pakistan (hardly known as a passive, peaceful nation, it being filled with Islamic fundamentalists) was elected President of the UN Conference States Parties to Biological Weapons Convention. Even so, he correctly summarized that "there was no room for complacency as biological weapons were a real, potent threat to humanity, not a figment of the imagination. They were weapons of mass destruction that might be as deadly as nuclear weapons, and even deadlier."[8]

Yes, Mr. Khan, I'm thinking, "...and even deadlier".


[image] "Floating TB Ward" Complexity Digest 2007.22 (Accessed 6/5/2007)

[1] "Glossary of Terms Often Used in Discussing Antibiotic Resistance" Union of Concerned Scientists (Accessed 6/5/2007)

[2] "Virus" The Nasa SCIence Files - Research Rack: Glossary (Accessed 6/5/2007)

[3] "Antiviral Drugs" MicrobiologyBytes Accessed 6/5/2007)

[4]"Smallpox, History" ZKEA (Accessed 6/5/2007)

[5] "Epidemic" The Canadian Encyclopedia (Acessed 6/5/2007)

[6] Amy Klein "Lecture addresses riot trends, students' desire to start riots" Iowa State Daily(Accessed 6/5/2007)

[7] Peter D.O. Davies "Multi-Drug Resistant Tuberculosis" Priory Medical Journals (Accessed 6/5/2007)

[8]"Sixth Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention Opens" The United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG) (Accessed 6/5/2007)


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At 12:54 PM, Blogger Ike said...

why don't you think people would be more at ease with the concept of vaccination than they were in the mid-19th century?

our (US) pandemic response is far from foolproof, but it has taken major steps forward in the last 5 years. the avian flu threat coupled with the incredible amount of GWOT money pouring into our "homeland defense" coffers has dramatically boosted readiness. at least, i'm comfortable predicting that our current plans/resources could easily combat those same pandemics recorded in history.

however, unprecedented global mobility adds a whole new spin. boat quarantines would only be effective for diseases passed along slow-vectors. any rapidly spreading disease would outflank such measures in the age of jet travel. containment hinges on the ability of the disease to use that vector more than anything else.

At 10:11 AM, Blogger brinticus said...

First, we have not had mandatory responsive vaccinations in recent times, only preventative ones. Second, in the article, I was concerned about mandatory responsive vaccinations that were controversial, such as those that might have a high casualty rate among the general population. Third, while you might be comfortable that our plans could combat pandemics, the history of our nation in dealing with pandemics in the past, and in dealing with something a simple to track as a hurricane (think "Katrina") have *not* been evidence in your favor. Finally, I agree with your take on global mobility, so no extra comments there. Thanks for reading.


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