Saturday, February 26, 2011

Germ Warfare

     I was stimulated to write this blog by the report circulated to me by e-mail by the ISID (International Society of Infectious Diseases), which said that there was an outbreak of at least 21 cases of a previously unknown phenotype of the measles virus in Turkey. The ISID ( performs an important information function. For instance, it was a Dutch physician recently returned from China who gave the first report of SARS, an epidemic the Chinese government tried to keep from the newspapers. Ibsen's play "Enemy of the People" always has the chance of occurring with real people and tourists, viz. the typhoid outbreak in Gstaad 20 years ago  just before the beginning of the ski season.

     This got me to thinking that the real danger to the world if a major war should break out is not atomic weapons (does anyone remember "duck and cover", and H. Rap Brown saying that "we are alive today because the Russians did not launch last night"?). The real problem would be unrestricted germ warfare. And the chosen method of attack would almost certainly be a virus, because (a) we have antibiotics that work against most bacteria, but few that work against viruses, and (b) except for a few exceptions such as anthrax spores, only viruses can be spread by fomites (inanimate objects), A further bonus is that except for the pneumonic version of the plague, it is much more difficult to spread acutely lethal bacterial infections, than to spread viruses (viz. the rapidity of the spread of many flu epicemics).

     It is generally accepted that the first attempt at germ warfare occurred during the sieges of walled cities in the 14th and 15th centuries, when the besiegers catapulted plague victims over the walls. One U.S. cavalry officer after our Civil War gave blankets to the Indians on which people with measles had lain (effect unknown). And Lord Jeffrey Amherst here in the Northeast plotted to distribute smallpox-laden blankets among the Indians in an attempt to "kill them all". Again, there is no record of the results.

     Now what would be the ideal virus, and what steps should the attacking country take to avoid "blowback"? The answer to the second question immediately answers the first. You would want to vaccinate your armed forces, police, and medical staff against your planned viral attack. The most efficient vaccine we have is for smallpox. It is also the most sensible one to use, because unlike measles it has no animal hosts, but only man (as far as we know). Therefore there is no risk of it hiding in the animal population. Smallpox has the added advantage of being rapidly spread, and quite lethal. The best way to spread it is to inoculate unvaccinated volunteers who are willing to die, wait for 7 to 10 days until their rashes appear, and they are maximally infective, and then fly them to the key cities of your chosen enemy and let them mingle among the people. Since we no longer vaccinate against smallpox this attack would be quick, very lethal, and probably unstoppable.

     Let me assure my readers that this blog does not plant ideas into anyone's head, because no one will take it seriously. Tom Clancy wrote a novel in 1997 which climaxed with a Japanese pilot flying a fully gasoline-loaded 747 into the Capitol building and killing the president, etc. No one guarded against this, and voila, along came 9/11/2001. I should also mention that all members of our armed forces are fully vacccinated against smallpox, the plague, etc. In theory there are only a few stocks of live smallpox kept tightly guarded in the U.S., Russia, and England, and we all know that if this is what the governments tell us it is probably true.

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