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On Point

Viral Terror


by Austin Bay
February 24, 2004

The nurse with the hypodermic said the vaccine she would inject in my bicep included antibodies for a flu virus originating in New Caledonia. As she swabbed my arm, she admitted she couldn't find New Caledonia on a map, though the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) flyer indicated its people "live close to animal disease sources." Viruses that "jump species" often produce epidemics. The infamous 1970s bug "swine flu" probably jumped from domestic pigs to humans.

I told the nurse New Caledonia is an island in the South Pacific, a French territory one long jumbo jet ride from Paris. Oh, she said as she took aim, her needle jab quick, precise and almost painless. She slapped on a Band-aid.

Bad bugs and big jets present a challenge. With the advent of long-range commercial aviation, contagious disease can move from local to global in days, if not hours. The mutating microorganism that jumps from pig to human farmer in New Caledonia can quickly infect a tourist on her way home to Marseilles. Mom and Dad, guess what Jacqueline brought back from the South Seas? Two weeks of low-grade fever.

Virulent microorganisms are, unfortunately, also a weapons system for 9-11 fanatics. Bubonic plague was a Weapon of Mass Destruction for medieval Europe. The terrible flu pandemic of 1918 and 1919 killed over 2 million people. Bugs can kill en masse, and they are much cheaper than a nuclear device.

We're beginning to grapple with the bio threat. Ironically, it may be easier to discuss nuclear and chemical terror than the biological variety. Nuclear and chemical weapons are definitely human products. The bio-attack strikes more secretively and insidiously. An outbreak of disease may or may not be a bio-weapon's evil spawn. The terror becomes intimate. A bio weapon delivery system could be your next-door neighbor, or the mosquito that nicked you before dinner. A chemical attack could kill hundreds of thousands, but it would be a single attack. The bio-attack could linger for centuries, lying dormant, then spreading again into generations born long after Al Qaeda enters history's ash heap.

Over a decade ago, I attended a biotechnology conference focused on beneficial research. However, two speakers touched on the near-taboo subject of "designer bugs." In theory, a virus could be "designed" genetically to attack a particular human DNA strand, one as unique as a single individual. I jotted a note about "the assassin bug." The script, unfortunately, has already left sci-fi Hollywood and entered sci-fact labs. What once appeared alarmist ---terrorists disseminating bio-engineered diseases--- is now recognized as a multidimensional international security threat.

Human lives are our first concern. However, the "madman" scenario of terrorists spreading small pox may be less of an immediate threat than an attack on agricultural production. The outbreak of bird flu in Asia and now in Texas is a lesson in the economic costs of "ag terror." Millions of slaughtered chickens represents millions of lost dollars, and also sows distrust in the food supply. For terrorists at war with civilized society, doubt, distrust and fear are major psychological and political objectives.

We aren't totally vulnerable. Aggressively pursuing and destroying terrorist cadres and the rogue states aiding them is perhaps the best public health program. The World Health Organization (WHO) and CDC bio-sleuths run an extensive disease monitoring and reporting network designed to pinpoint potential outbreaks and then provide medical advice and assistance. It does work, especially when citizens actively cooperate. Quarantine is a key tool for combating all forms of bio terror, and was used last year when SARS plagued Asia. Careful inspection helps stop the spread of agricultural diseases.

Vaccination programs are a major line of defense. Vaccine preparation, however, is a guessing game. Last fall, the New Caledonia bug was contained, but another strain -- one the vaccine I received did not counter -- spread fever and fear. The virulent strain killed hundreds globally. Still, readying labs for "rapid-reaction" research programs, stockpiling antiviral drugs and budgeting money to surge vaccine production is cash well spent.

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