Why build and deploy a bomb if you can kill millions of people for one-tenth of one-percent of the cost? That’s a threat that keeps generals awake at night, as the Department of Defense gets briefed by the U.S. Academy of Sciences on details of what could happen if an enemy of the United States were to deploy a biological weapon against the American population.
“This really just brings the warning to the forefront and is asking the government to consider this as a top priority,” says UT Health infectious disease expert Dr. Luis Ostrosky.
Science and technology is evolving rapidly, making development of deadly pathogens and the mechanisms to disperse them easier. Genetic manipulation, now curing cancer and informing drug development, in nefarious hands, can create a new class of viruses or bacteria. Diseases such as small pox, eradicated by 1967, could be redesigned, with a tweak here and there, to deadly effect. Older people were vaccinated but there came a point when all threat of small pox had been so thoroughly eliminated that preventative measures were no longer administered, leaving a segment of the public vulnerable today. “Populations after 1970 have never seen this virus and would be highly susceptible to it,” Dr. Ostrosky adds. In the 1900’s, before it was extinguished in 1967, small pox killed between 300 and 500 million people. In 1918 500 million people globally died from the Spanish flu; more deadly varieties of a flu could be in the works. To study and understand the biological threats that could exist, scientists and researchers work in secret labs to gain broader understanding, though it was one of those researchers working at the one of those labs who became the prime though unverified suspect of the September 2001 anthrax attack. There is no telling where the threat may come from, but the preparations are underway to stand against all dangers, foreign or domestic, old or new, natural or manufactured.
“We have the national pharmaceutical stockpile that stockpiles vaccines and antibiotics,” reassures Dr. Ostrosky. Let us hope it is enough.