The Next Plague

It isn’t in the news. It doesn’t have any impact, at the moment, on anyone’s daily life. It isn’t the kind of thing that the president talks about in State of the Union speeches, or that the Democratic candidates talk about on the stump. And it might also prove to be the greatest threat to this country’s physical and political existence in the 21st century.

I am talking here about bioterrorism, and I admit that I am on shaky ground. I am not, by training, a genetic scientist; my grasp of DNA still derives from a cheerful, multi-colored plastic model of the double helix that I remember seeing in a science classroom long ago. But if I must therefore rely on what other people tell me is now scientifically possible, at least that allows me to empathize with almost everyone who makes major funding and strategic decisions about biodefense. There may be many favorable things to be said about the secretaries of health and human services and of homeland security, Tommy Thompson and Tom Ridge, but it is nevertheless true that neither of them has a background in molecular biology or advanced genetics.

All of us are dependent on what scientists tell us. And a handful of scientists are saying, to anyone who will listen, that most of us don’t understand the implications of their research, because if we did, we’d be terrified — as I was, when I began to listen. According to one molecular biologist who should know, there are already 20,000 labs in the world where a single person will be able to synthesize any existing virus within the next decade. In the same 20,000 labs, five people with $2 million will be able to create an enhanced pathogen — meaning a virus that could infect people who have been immunized with conventional vaccines — and kill perhaps a billion of them. With an additional $3 million, the same five people could build a lab from scratch, using equipment purchased online.

The threat, then, is not merely from the diseases we know about — anthrax, smallpox, plague — but from the diseases that haven’t been invented yet. The threat is also coming from a new kind of science that by its very its nature is not susceptible to traditional forms of control. DNA cannot be monitored in the way enriched uranium can. It isn’t possible to distinguish “safe” lines of biological engineering research from “dangerous” ones, since they are identical. Genetic research cannot simply be banned either. The South Korean scientists who last week announced that they had successfully created the world’s first mature, cloned human embryos were not bound by (or, for all I know, even interested in) the ethical norms laid out during our tempestuous national debate about cloning.

If a ban is out of the question, we need to be prepared in other ways. That means thinking creatively, not just about new cures for smallpox but about ways to cut the time it takes to make new vaccines for new diseases, from years to hours. Or ways to detect the presence of disease, not just in the air but inside people or animals or crops. Or ways to boost the immune system itself. Some think we’re moving in that direction. For reassurance, listen to Anthony S. Fauci, head of infectious diseases research at the National Institutes of Health, who points out that new money for biodefense in the past three years represents the largest funding increase in NIH history and encompasses research into all of the above.

But given the speed and scope of the revolution taking place in biological science, others think that we haven’t even begun to reckon yet with the problem. Either way, it’s unlikely that long-term research launched last year could protect us from an attack if it took place next year, so we need, at the very least, to be psychologically prepared.

And are we? It’s hard to know, because, as I say, the subject resonates so little with the normal political constituencies. Most of the people who talk about the need to spend more money on homeland security are talking about funds for firefighters or ports. Most of the people who worry about terrorism are talking about airplanes or nukes.

Most of the people in general don’t worry about problems they haven’t got the vocabulary to discuss, which allows most of the politicians to ignore them most of the time. The fact that this subject isn’t part of our regularly scheduled programming itself indicates how far we, as a country, are from grappling with the diseases that will be invented a few years from now.

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