When The Next Animal Plague Happens, Can This Laboratory Stand?


There were 16 pathogens on the terrorist list, written in tall, sharp beetles that leaned over the page. Next to each was the incubation period, the route of transmission and the expected mortality. Pneumatic plague, contracted when the bacterium responsible for bubonic plague enters the lungs, was at the top of the list. Left untreated, the disease kills all that infect. Further on there were some names of past pandemics – cholera, anthrax. But what struck General Richard B. Myers was something else: Most of the pathogens did not affect humans at all. Stem rust, rice blight, foot-and-mouth disease, bird flu, swine cholera. These were biological weapons intended to attack the global food system.

Myers was the chairman of joint chiefs of staff in 2002, when Navy SEALS found the roster in an underground complex in eastern Afghanistan. U.S. intelligence services have already suspected that al Qaeda he was interested in biological weapons, but this added weight to the idea that, as Myers put it, “they were really going to do it.” Later that year, he said, another intelligence source said a group of Al Qaeda members had ended up in the mountains of the northeast. Iraq, where several pathogens were tested on dogs and goats.

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Photography: Djeneba Aduayom

“To my knowledge, they never got to the point where it was useful to them in the context of the battlefield,” Myers told us. “But since Al Qaeda, as we discovered with the World Trade Center in New York City, never quite abandoned an idea, it’s not something you can just dismiss.” In fact, he said: “I think there is other information, probably classified that will tell you what it is no the case – but I’m not deprived of all that or deprived of talking about it. “

Although Al Qaeda has advanced, other groups seem to have taken the bioterror stick: In 2014 a dusty Dell laptop recovered from an ISIS plateau in northern Syria – the “laptop of doom,” as it was later is doubled Foreign Policy– it has been found to contain detailed instructions for the production and spread of bubonic plague with infected animals.

For a future bioterrorist, Myers says, farms and food are a “sweet target”. They are not well safe, and effective pathogens are not particularly difficult to manufacture and spread. Foot-and-mouth disease, a virus called after the large swollen blisters it causes on the tongue, mouth and feet of hoofed animals, is so contagious that the discovery of a case in a herd usually leads to massacre. . “All you have to do is put a handkerchief under the nose of a sick animal in Afghanistan, put it in a ziplock bag, come to the United States, and leave it in a food court in Dodge City,” said Senator Pat Roberts to a local NPR subsidiary in 2006. “Bingo!”


Agriculture is also highly concentrated: Three percent supply three-quarters of the vegetables in the United States, and 2 percent of the food supplies three-quarters of the country’s beef. In addition, both crops and livestock are genetically uniform. A quarter of the genetic material in the entire Holstein band of America comes from just five bulls. (One of them, Pawnee Farm Arlinda Chief, contributed nearly 14 percent.) Monocultures like this are exceptionally vulnerable to disease. They are a buffet all you can eat for parasites and pathogens. With or without the assistance of a scholarly terrorist, the world is just as susceptible to an agricultural pandemic as before. Covid-19-And if anything, less prepared to fight him.

To diagnose deadly diseases and develop treatments and vaccines for them, researchers need to work with them in a laboratory, but very few establishments are safe enough. Foot-and-mouth disease, in particular, is so easily transmitted that the live virus cannot be carried to the American continent without the written permission of the Secretary of Agriculture. The only place researchers can work with is the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, built on a low island 8 miles off the coast of Connecticut. “Sounds fascinating,” as Hannibal Lecter, the antihero murdered in The Silence of the Lambs, he murmured when he was offered the chance of the holidays here.)

Plum Island has the advantage of a natural-ocean sanitary cordon. But it was opened in 1954, and its laboratories are obsolete. They are not certified to treat pathogens that require the highest level of containment, Biosafety Level 4. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, BSL-4 microbes are “dangerous and exotic, presenting an high risk of aerosol-borne infections.” Typically, they can infect both animals and humans and have no known treatment or vaccine. Ebola is one. So are the Nipah and Hendra viruses emerging most recently. Only three plants in the world are currently equipped to accommodate large animals at this level. If there had been an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the United States tomorrow, researchers here would have had to beg their Canadian, Australian or German counterparts for laboratory space.

That will change next year, when the Department of Homeland Security opens its new $ 1.25 billion laboratory, the National Bio and Agro-Defense Fund. Located in Manhattan, Kansas, a university city in the agricultural heart of America, the NBAF will follow the 21st century trend in infectious disease control: Instead of relying on a geographic barrier in Plum Island style for safety , will use extraordinary engineering controls. Here, amid grain and livestock, researchers are working to protect food from an oncoming plague.

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