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March 31, 2003

The New Weapon

Started reading Judith Miller's Germs over the weekend, in between rainstorms and beer. Actually did a little fishing too, if you call casting out the same pieces of untouched mullet and shrimp out time and again fishing. It was really too early in the season, as the dozens of equally unlucky anglers at the pier just up the beach testified.

"Nobody up here caught nothing but some mullet and one o' them puffer toads," one particularly red gentleman informed me.

We suspected that we had come to the beach before the fish did, but thought to try our luck anyway, and did manage to be out for the half of Saturday that was 76 degrees and sunny. On the way to Atlantic beach from Woundwort's river house, it was cloudy and spittin'. On the way back it was cloudy and promised spittin' later on. While we were actually on the beach it was May, with an February ocean that had seemingly missed its plane. Very cold on the toes, and I could only stare in disbelief at the tweens frolicking in the surf down the beach, who ran into the waves and shrieked like the souls of the damned with every cold slap.

Also watched the kite boarders, when we weren't passing the minutes doing the busy work of fishermen with no fish, and no promise of fish to come. Check a line, cut some bait, reel in the line, replace the bait, move the rod holder up or down the beach based on the tide, cast and repeat with other rod.

Jawbreaker could do this for many hours, and did. Woundwort and I gave up after only a couple of them, then sat in our fold-up chairs watching the gentle back and forth of the rod tips as wave action pulled the lines up and down. Only occasionally did we remove a waterlogged piece of mullet from the hook, re-bait, and cast back out. Eventually Jawbreaker took over our rods just to have something to do, and we watched him work all six lines. He performed the rituals of the Fish Gods as best he understood them for the next hour, while Woundwort and I sat like reptiles recently emerged from hibernation in the March sun. But the Pisican deities saw him not, and we returned with nothing other than sunburns for he and Woundwort. I was not burned, which I attributed to the Indian blood rumored to flow in my family. (Choctaw or Creek or Blackfoot, I can never remember) Also to the long sleeved golf coverup I put on when the temperature dropped down to a chilly 71.

So there I was on the beach, bundled up against the unseasonable cold, when I came across this passage, rather early on:

One insight drawn from the preliminary tests and analysis was surprising and counterintuitive. Early on, the military concluded that killing enemy soldiers was unnecessary. In fact, viral crippling came to be seen as preferable to death, since an ailing soldier tied up more enemy transports, doctors, nurses, hospitals drugs and bureaucrats.

Of course, some soldiers and civilians would die in a biological attack. There's no such thing as a virus that can make everybody very sick, but not kill anyone. The very young and the very old are especially vulnerable, just as with any normal disease. That was considered acceptable by American researchers for biological warfare in the late fifties and early sixties, especially as the number of such deaths would be far below the number killed by a more conventional attack. What we considered an ideal biological weapon was one that killed very few, yet caused long-term debilitation.

Mixtures of multiple germs and toxins were tested in order to reach this goal. One of the most successful was a blend consisting of the viruses that cause Q fever and Venezuelan equine encephalitis, and a toxin produced by a Staphylococcus bacterium. The toxin could put a soldier out of commission in as little as three hours, and the viruses could keep him there for up to a month. Germs were manufactured to be small and light, to be able to travel through the airs for distances of up to fifty miles. Microbes were also field tested, with army personnel releasing them in American cities in order to study how they spread:

The scientists sprayed mild germs on San Francisco and shattered lightbulbs filled with bacteria in the New York City subway, all to assess the ability of pathogens to spread through urban centers. The germs were meant to be harmless. But years later critics charged that some had produced hidden epidemics, especially among the old and infirm. After the army sprayed the San Francisco area with Serratia marcescens, eleven patients at the Stanford University hospital came down with that type of infection. One patient died there. The doctors were so mystified by the outbreak that they wrote it up in a medical journal. The government later denied any responsibility for the death or the other infections, producing evidence in court that its germs were not to blame. The scientific dispute was never resolved.

Now assuming that outbreak was indeed due to the governmental microbe release, an epidemiologist attempting to backtrack the path the disease took would soon find that it was an exercise in futility. At best he or she might be able to pinpoint a general area that the initial cases occurred in. A specific, pinpointed origin of the disease would never be found. This happens occasionally in natural outbreaks of disease, but often something like an Ebola outbreak can often be traced back to one person (patient zero) and the monkey he ate. Unnatural outbreaks of disease, i.e. biological attacks, are not going to leave that type of evidence, as presumably the originator of the disease is not going to stand around in one place for days or weeks waiting to say. "Ok, you got me." when the public health officials finally show up.

So, had America attacked Cuba with a biological weapon during the Cuban Missile Crisis, something which was discussed, the outbreak might have had some of these qualities.

1.) Long lasting and debilitating, with a low fatality rate.
2.) Epidemiologically complex, with multiple patient zeros rather than one, all with very little in common other than perhaps a general location.
3.) One or more viruses involved, perhaps with a toxin added to the initial slurry. With a mixture like this the initial cases would be seen as more severe than subsequent ones, as a toxin would presumably dissipate over time, while viruses could persist in a spore-like fashion. Toxins, again unlike viruses, cannot be passed along from from person to person.
4.) An airborne transmission route, among others.

Had the disease been an accident, or a test release gone awry one might add governmental secrecy and denials to the mix, as with the Sverdlosk anthrax release in the Soviet Union, or as in the San Francisco case above.

When asked about the possibility that the current SARS outbreak was due to a biological weapon, the best a CDC spokesman could come up with was that the possibility was "improbable", adding "But we don't see anything that looks like a terrorism attack right now."

No, it doesn't look like terrorism. I also don't expect that the CDC would ever come out and attribute any disease outbreak to a biological attack. They're not in the business of spreading panic.

But SARS does fulfill the qualifications above, especially when the reluctance of the Chinese government to release information about the initial outbreak in Guangdong province is taken into account. For instance, a patient zero is claimed to exist, but no one knows his name, nor has he been interviewed by a western public health official.

Odds are that the SARS outbreak is not due to a biological weapon release, either accidentally or on purpose. Despite what the scientist are saying, at this point it's impossible to tell if SARS is solely caused by a paramyxirvirus, a coronavirus, or a mixture of the two. It's still a very mysterious illness, with information in some of the links above undermining or contradicting data found in others. There is also still some confusion of who exactly are the index cases, apparently.

Sadly, that doesn't matter anymore. Even if the SARS outbreak is eventually found to have been a completely natural case of species jumping, SARS is going to be investigated for its potential as a weapon. Its combination of the ability to travel via multiple transmission routes, low fatality rate and lengthy infection period guarantee that. Frankly, every new disease is going to be looked at by someone with an eye out for its potential as a weapon. That's just the world we live in now.

What is not guaranteed is that there will ever be a vaccine for SARS. If the infection dies out soon, then the media will turn its attention elsewhere and the pressure to produce a vaccine will fade. Drug companies prefer not to produce vaccines anyway. They're expensive to produce, as well as being lawsuit magnets due to side effects that are often not uncovered until large number of people are vaccinated. An early vaccine would also reduce the value of SARS as a weapon, since it could likely be adapted at a later date for any SARS mutations built in to the microbe(s) by a weaponization process.

In any case, SARS should illustrate the necessity for at least one international public health organization, or very close cooperation between national public health organizations. As SARS shows, germs can cross borders all too easily. The problem then becomes a matter of trust, and it's still a large one. After all, wow many of you are willing to put your trust in the national Chinese public health system?

Posted by Bigwig at March 31, 2003 01:23 AM | TrackBack
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