When the next animal plague hits, can this lab stop it?

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There were 16 of them pathogens on the terrorist list, inscribed by tall, pointed cartoonists mowing across the page. Next to each was the incubation period, the route of transmission, and the expected mortality. Pulmonary plague, infected when the bacterium responsible for bubonic plague enters the lungs, was at the top of the list. If left untreated, disease it kills everyone it infects. Then there were some names from past pandemics – cholera, anthrax. But what struck General Richard B. Myers was something else: most pathogens did not affect humans at all. Stem rust, rice, foot and paw explosion, bird flu, swine cholera. It was a biological weapon intended to attack global food system.

Myers was chairman of the Joint Staff in 2002, when the SEALS Navy found the list in an underground complex in eastern Afghanistan. U.S. intelligence has already suspected that al kaida he was interested in biological weapons, but that added weight to the idea that, as Myers said, “they really go for it.” Later that year, he said, another intelligence source reported that a group of al Qaeda members ended up in the mountains of the northeast. Iraq, where they tested various pathogens on dogs and goats.

This article appears in the July 2021 issue. Subscribe to WIRED.

Photo: 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 learned with the World Trade Center in New York, never gives up on the idea, it’s not something you can simply dismiss.” In fact, he said, “I think there are other, probably confidential data that would tell you that this is so no case – but I’m not familiar with all that or talking about it. “

Even if Al Qaeda has moved on, other groups appear to have taken the baton of bioterror: in 2014, a dusty Dell laptop was pulled from an ISIS hideout in northern Syria – a “laptop of doom”, as it was later synchronized Foreign policy—It was discovered to contain detailed instructions for the production and spread of bubonic plague using infected animals.

Myers says farms and feeding grounds are a “soft target” for a potential bioterrorist. They are not well secured, and effective pathogens are not particularly difficult to produce and distribute. Foot-and-mouth disease, a virus named after the large, swollen blisters it causes on the tongues, mouth and feet of equidae, is so contagious that the discovery of a single case in a herd usually triggers a mass shooting. “All you do is put a handkerchief under the nose of a sick animal in Afghanistan, put it in a zippered bag, come to the U.S. and throw it in a feeder in Dodge City,” Senator Pat Roberts told the NPR 2006 local branch. “Bingo!”

Farming is also highly concentrated: three states supply three-quarters of the U.S.’s vegetables, and 2 percent of the feeders supply three-quarters of the country’s beef. Moreover, both crops and livestock are genetically uniform. A quarter of the genetic material in the entire American Holstein herd comes from just five bulls. (One of them, farm manager Pawnee Arlinda, gave nearly 14 percent.) Monocultures like this are extremely susceptible to disease. They are a buffet for everything you can eat for pests and pathogens. With or without the help of a studious terrorist, the world is just as vulnerable to an agricultural pandemic as it was Covid-19“And if he’s any less prepared to fight.”

To diagnose deadly diseases and develop treatments and vaccines for them, researchers must work with them in the laboratory, but very few facilities are safe enough. In particular, foot-and-mouth disease is transmitted so easily that a live virus cannot be brought to the U.S. mainland without the written approval of the Secretary of Agriculture. The only place researchers can work with is the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, built on a low islet 8 miles off the coast of Connecticut. “Sounds charming,” as Hannibal Lecter, the killer antihero from The silence of the lambs, he murmured when given the opportunity to rest there.)

Plum Island has the advantage of a natural sanitary cordon – the ocean. But it opened in 1954, and its laboratories are outdated. They are not certified to handle pathogens that require the highest level of retention, Biosafety level 4. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, BSL-4 microbes are “dangerous and exotic, which poses a high risk of aerosol-borne infections.” They can typically infect both animals and humans and have no known treatment or vaccine. Ebola is one. Such are the recent Nipah and Hendra viruses. Currently, only three facilities in the world are equipped to accommodate large animals at this level. For an epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease to occur in the U.S. tomorrow, researchers here would have to beg Canadian, Australian or German colleagues 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 Plant. Located in Manhattan, Kansas, a college town in the U.S. Agricultural Center, the NBAF will follow the 21st century trend in infectious disease control: Instead of relying on a Plum Island-style geographic barrier, it will use outstanding engineering controls. Here, among corn and cattle, researchers will work to protect food supplies from the impending plague.



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