The Coming Bioattack

Microbes have brought down more empires than bombs, and pose a greater terroristic threat. Stephan Talty, author of The Illustrious Dead, describes how the coming germ attack could unfold.

One scenario goes something like this.

A young man meets with a scientist in a country in the former Soviet Union. He hands over $10,000 and the scientist—a former specialist who has access to stores from the USSR’s mammoth bioweapons program—hands the man a package. In it is a quantity of dried, finely milled anthrax spores.

Four days later, the man’s associate gets on a plane to New York . The anthrax powder is secreted in a small watertight container that easily passes inspection at JFK. The associate takes a cab to Brooklyn, where another member of the UA—the Universal Adversary, government-speak for al Qaeda and other terrorist outfits—is waiting. The anthrax spores are divided up and UA operatives travel to five cities, or if they’re very smart, three large cities, one midsize city and a small town (which will leave no sanctuaries once the mission is complete). They distribute the containers containing the anthrax powder to the final teams.

When government inspectors traveled to San Antonio’s Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research, they found the place secured only slightly better than a small county library.

One week later, in a coordinated 9 a.m. attack, vans equipped with spray mechanisms trawl through the city and town centers, pouring millions of spores into the air as office workers throng the streets on their way to work: 328,848 people are exposed. 13,208 of them die.

Within a matter of weeks, America is transformed. One can only imagine the chaos, the cratering economy, the emergence of all forms of social disorder.

Or one could simply read about it. It’s happened before.

For decades, the only doomsday scenario was nuclear. The giant mushroom cloud over New York has become so familiar it’s almost comforting. But we may be ignoring a far older adversary, one well-versed in bringing down empires.

In researching my latest book, The Illustrious Dead: How Typhus Killed Napoleon’s Greatest Army, I learned how microbes have made and remade history. Napoleon’s France in 1812 was at the height of its powers. It led the world in science and high culture and outstripped the militaries of its rivals. But, as he began his invasion of Russia, the tiny rickettsia prowazekii—a microbe only 2 microns across—infected the soldiers of Napoleon’s Grand Armée, the greatest fighting force since Xerxes’ time, and tripped his empire into its grave.

France wasn’t the first to suffer. I paged through descriptions of the dead cities that pathogens had left behind. I read the accounts of commanders marveling as their armies withered under attacks from unseen enemies. Justinian’s Rome shattered as bubonic plague swept its borders. Napoleon, motivated partly by fear of the yellow fever that had decimated his armies in Haiti, sold Thomas Jefferson the Louisiana Purchase for a song. Henry VIII, whose allies were attacked by typhus in a crucial battle, abandoned his hopes of a Catholic divorce and created the Church of England.

Empires bloomed or faded. Religions were born. My research forced me to look at human societies from a microbial point of view, and they looked remarkably fragile. Including our own.

In 2008’s “World at Risk,” last year’s congressional report on the threat of WMDs, the panel concluded that “terrorists are more likely to be able to obtain and use a biological weapon than a nuclear weapon.” The reasons are simple: It’s far easier to get hold of a pathogen than it is to get the highly enriched uranium or plutonium necessary for a nuke. You can pretend to be a researcher and buy one from a commercial supplier. You might pick up a few vials from a defunct bioweapons program, like the Soviet Union’s massive effort, which employed 60,000 scientists at its height, or apartheid South Africa ’s “Project Coast,” whose stocks have reportedly never been disposed of. Or you might just steal some.

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Even here at home, biosecurity is often a contradiction in terms. LaGuardia Airport is chock-a-block with soldiers carrying automatic rifles, but last year, when government inspectors traveled to San Antonio’s Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research—a level 4 facility that houses ebola and other viruses too dread to think about—they found security cameras that covered only parts of the perimeter, rent-a-cops without guns, and a humble gate that would have trouble stopping a gutsy subcompact. The place was secured only slightly better than a small county library.

We are complacent. The bioterror calls to arms in “World at Risk” barely elicited a yawn from the media and the public. We haven’t experienced the biological equivalent of Hiroshima or 9/11, and it shows.

Some experts do believe that the threat is overblown, arguing that a mass bioattack is far beyond the means of terrorist groups. It would take a fairly sophisticated national effort, they say, and our enemies have never shown much interest in putting one together. They prefer guns, bombs, that sort of thing.

But other scientists counter that basic skills in microbiology and biotechnology can get you a bioweapon. They point to the fact that al Qaeda has been trying to develop anthrax, and came close with Yazid Sufaat, an American-trained biologist who operated a lab near the Kandahar airport before being arrested in 2001.

So why are we so bored with the idea of a killer bug? In researching The Illustrious Dead, I was astonished to learn that Napoleon had a rather unique view of contagious disease. He believed it resulted from a failure of will. Victims of typhus were simply not trying hard enough to stay healthy; they allowed themselves to be overtaken by the virus. They were weak. And Napoleon, who failed to get the plague even after touching infected soldiers, was strong.

We are, in one way, equally blind, equally enamored of our own virtues. We’ve decided nature is our friend, and it’s a good friend. In fact, we love nature, and there’s nothing really wrong with that. But we simply haven’t made the psychological shift to accommodate the truth a Parisian in 1815 could have imparted to us: Our beloved Earth produces killer after killer, from typhus to smallpox.

Yes, but we didn’t we cure all those diseases? It’s true. We did. We look at the great epidemics from across a great divide: the establishment of germ theory in the early 1900s and the discovery of vaccines for the deadliest diseases.

But stitched into the lining of this great achievement is a black thread. In the past, people largely attributed epidemics to God or nature or the individual sufferer. Little or nothing was expected from authorities. Governments escaped blame almost entirely. And citizens of 18th-century France could count on witnessing several epidemics during their lives. People were expected to die of contagious disease. That produced a subtle social effect. Epidemics often produced terror, but not rage.

Today, however, we have placed all our faith in science and in government. Science is supposed to find an antidote and the government is supposed to deliver it. Between them, the two are expected to save us, not only from falling sick, but from the panic and social dissolution that are the hallmarks of great pandemics.

But what if they can’t do it quickly enough? What would the costs be? Consider the economics of a recent biodisaster. The 2001 anthrax letter attacks were carried out with 15 grams of the pathogen. They killed five people. The cost, by one estimate, was about $6 billion. That’s $1.2 billion per victim.

Imagine if, when the next bioattack hits, or even a natural epidemic rolls from coast to coast, it takes weeks or months for scientists to produce an antidote, and that hundreds of thousands of people die as we watch cable TV around the clock in terrified little huddles. Imagine the rage that greeted the government’s failure with Hurricane Katrina magnified a hundred, a thousand times. Imagine the Chinese government’s crude mishandling of the Szechuan earthquake repeated during an epic biological disaster.

The next biological event—whether natural or engineered—will be a medical challenge only in its first stages. It will then rather quickly become a social, political, and strategic challenge (remember the Louisiana Purchase—some empires win in the post-epidemic landscape). And, if it is a terror strike, the image of those rent-a-cops strolling yards from the anthrax cabinet will not inspire gratitude, or faith.

Napoleon blamed the victims, his illustrious dead. We will look for larger targets. But it might make more sense to begin with the accountability now, before the emergency rooms begin to fill up.

Stephan Talty is the author of The Illustrious Dead: The Terrifying Story of How Typhus Killed Napoleon's Greatest Army, out this week from Crown. His last book was the New York Times bestseller Empire of Blue Water.

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