Infectious disease researchers kill people. (Sadly, not a conspiracy theory.)
They kill by accident and on purpose. With smallpox and anthrax. In the US and UK and USSR. China too. No wonder Tony Fauci doesn’t want anyone looking too hard at the origins of Sars-Cov-2.
(FIRST OF TWO PARTS)
Smallpox was eradicated in 1977. An incredible medical achievement. A terrible virus would no longer stalk humanity.
Except. The last person who died from smallpox died in 1978.
Sept. 11, 1978, to be precise.
Her name was Janet Parker. She was a photographer in Birmingham, England - thousands of miles from Somalia, where the last cases of smallpox had occurred.
Smallpox was eradicated from the wild in 1977. It lived on (to the extent that viruses live) in laboratories.
Janet Parker was infected in a laboratory leak at Birmingham Medical School. She used a telephone booth one floor above the lab, and investigators concluded the virus must have been sucked through a vent into the booth. The virologist who ran the lab, Dr. Henry Bedson, killed himself by slitting his throat on Sept. 6, 1978, five days before Parker died.
“I am sorry to have misplaced the trust which so many of my friends and colleagues have placed in me and my work,” he wrote.
Thirty years later, on July 29, 2008, a troubled American anthrax researcher named Bruce Ivins followed Bedson on the last train out, killing himself with a Tylenol overdose. Ivins didn’t leave a note to apologize, though he did write something illegible on his leg.
At the time Ivins killed himself, Federal prosecutors were preparing to charge him in the 2001 anthrax attacks that killed five people and injured 17 others - the worst act of biological terrorism in United States history.
The case shouldn’t have taken seven years to crack. Ivins, who had serious psychiatric problems, worked at the main biological weapons lab for the United States military, where he personally kept a huge flask of the exact strain of anthrax used in the attacks.
The call is coming from inside the house.
I’ve been diving into the murky history of biological weapons and defense research for my new book about the origins of Sars-Cov-2 - and our response to it.
Not because Sars-Cov-2 is a biological weapon. It’s not.
But many of the people at the center of our response to Covid first came to prominence in the late 1990s as they sounded the alarm about the threat of biological warfare. The “tabletop games” meant to warn policymakers about emerging infectious diseases? Those used to be tabletop games meant to warn policymakers about bioterrorism.
What’s particularly interesting about biological weapons is that as weapons - tactical or strategic tools of war - they don’t make much sense. They never have. To take one fascinating example, in the early 1990s, an apocalyptic Japanese cult called Aum Shinrikyo tried very hard to make them work.
The word cult is a misnomer in this case. It gives the impression of a guru and a few raggedy followers living off the grid. In fact Aum Shinrikyo had hundreds of millions of dollars, recruited graduates of top Japanese universities, and bought high-end lab and production equipment from all over the world.
The group also faced little government interference. Japanese police had a permissive attitude towards religious splinter groups and took almost no action against it - even after it killed eight people and injured hundreds in a nerve gas attack in 1994.
Despite these advantages, Aum Shinrikyo’s repeated efforts at biological warfare failed. Its chemical attacks did not. The Japanese government finally smashed it after it attacked the Tokyo subways in March 1995, killing 14 people with sarin. It has largely been forgotten. When Japan put its leader and six other members to death in 2018, the executions received little attention.
Biological weapons are inherently terrifying. Dying of smallpox or anthrax or Ebola is a nasty way to go. (Not that dying of sarin is much fun either, but at least it’s quick.)
But, thankfully, trying to weaponize biological agents turns out to be much harder than it seems. Even anthrax and smallpox, probably the two most dangerous pathogens of all, have serious weaknesses as weapons.
Smallpox spreads person-to-person, can be highly contagious, and kills about 30 percent of the unvaccinated people it infects. But the virus’s incubation period - the time between when people are exposed to smallpox and when they can spread it - is almost two weeks. Further, smallpox can only be transmitted by people who are showing symptoms, and most quickly become too sick to spread it further. And the smallpox vaccine is highly effective.
Thus public health authorities that are looking for smallpox can fairly easily stamp it out - as they did in under a decade, once the worldwide eradication campaign began in earnest. The eradication campaign was successful even though it took place in the world’s poorest and most densely populated countries. Wealthier nations had largely eliminated smallpox by the 1950s.
Inhalational anthrax is even deadlier than smallpox. Untreated, it kills almost everyone it infects. Anthrax is widespread in the wild - cattle regularly die of it - so it cannot ever be eradicated.
And anthrax does not spread person-to-person, which arguably makes it more useful than smallpox as a weapon, because an attacker does not have to worry about uncontrolled spread and blowback. Smallpox gets more attention, smallpox is the demon in the freezer, but anthrax may be the biggest threat of all.
Even so, we have effective antibiotics for anthrax, if they are given promptly. And clumps of anthrax spores do not penetrate the lungs deeply. They must be released as a fine powder that will disperse quickly. But if the spores disperse too fast they may quickly fall below lethal concentrations. They also degrade very quickly in sunlight. All these practical difficulties together mean using anthrax for a mass outdoor attack is very difficult.
Don’t take it from me.
As one government official said after the 2001 anthrax attacks, a second attack would “create massive panic in this country. It would create economic and other real, logistical problems. But at the end of the day, you’re not going to kill as many people as you would if you blasted off a couple of car bombs in Times Square.”
Yes, this official saw his job as offering crucial context around the risks of a pathogen, rather than stirring public fear. His name?
Dr. Anthony Fauci.
Those were the days.
Fauci made that assessment in 2007. But it reflected the standard view of American policymakers for most of the second half of the 20th century. Relative to other weapons of mass destruction, biological weapons were difficult to develop, much less use. They required highly trained scientists and expensive laboratories.
Any country that could make them at scale could probably make a nuclear weapon, using technology that was far more reliable. And nuclear weapons are far more powerful deterrents than biological weapons. Since August 1945, no one has had to wonder how much damage even a small nuclear bomb can do. To this day, no country known to have nuclear weapons has ever been invaded.
On the other end of the spectrum, chemical weapons are relatively cheap and easy to make and deliver and can be stunningly lethal against unprotected civilians. And regulating the trade in their precursors, the chemicals that can be used to produce them, is next to impossible.
For terrorists or poorer countries that want a weapon of mass destruction, chemicals are the obvious choice. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq killed tens of thousands of Kurds and Iranians with mustard and nerve gas in the late 1980s.
As for biological weapons? The United States was well aware that they had the unfortunate knack of killing the people who worked on them. In 1975, the New York Times reported on the deaths of three workers at Fort Detrick - the government biological research facility where Bruce Ivins also worked.
As the the article explained:
The Army disclosed yesterday that Mr. Boyles had died of anthrax, a bacteriological infection carried by cattle that is seldom found in the United States. The Army admitted that it had falsified his death certificate and had issued a false press release stating that he had died from pnenmonia.
The Army also admitted similar cover‐ups in the deaths of two other employes at Fort Detrick—Joel Eugene Willard, a 53‐year‐old electrician, on July 5, 1958, and Albert Nickel, 58, an animal caretaker, on Feb. 10, 1964.
And so in 1969 the United States ended its offensive weapons research and changed Fort Detrick’s name to the “United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases” - or the Institute. Three years later, it signed the Biological Weapons Convention, prohibiting the development, production, stockpiling, or use of pathogens as weapons.
Who cared? We had enough nukes to turn the world into highly radioactive spaghetti.
In the late 1990s, though, this sanguine view slowly changed, thanks mainly to two scientists.
The first was Dr. Ken Alibek, a Soviet scientist who defected to the United States in 1992 and explained how before it collapsed, the Soviet Union had run a massive covert biological weapons program that included anthrax and smallpox.
The second was Dr. D.A. Henderson, who had led the successful campaign to eradicate smallpox.
Henderson, who died in 2016, was truly impressive in his dedication to public health. After the 1978 leak in Birmingham he became convinced that laboratories shouldn’t work with smallpox anymore, and he pressured researchers everywhere to give up their stores of the virus. By 1990, only two laboratories retained it, one at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and one in Moscow.
Henderson wanted those labs to destroy their stockpiles too.
He wanted the virus gone forever. He wanted it not just eradicated but extinct. His logic was that if smallpox didn’t exist anymore, every scientist and government would know that keeping even a single vial of it constituted a crime against humanity. Full stop.
Other scientists thought that having a couple of stockpiles locked away might be useful if smallpox did pop up again in the wild. A slow debate began.
But what no one realized was that the Soviets had been brazenly flouting the 1972 treaty against the development of biological weapons. They hadn’t just been researching smallpox, they’d been making it by the ton, according to Alibek.
Henderson may have been somewhat naive about the Soviets, especially considering that the Soviet Union had suffered an anthrax outbreak in 1979 that had killed almost 100 people and appeared to be a leak from a Soviet weapons facility. The Soviets denied any culpability, going so far as to send physicians make their case to American scientists in a 1988 visit. Science magazine covered the trip:
Sverdlovsk: Anthrax Capital?: Soviet doctors answer questions about an unusual anthrax epidemic once thought to have been triggered by a leak from a weapons lab
Once thought to have been triggered by a leak... but now we know better! Only a conspiracy theorist would believe the lab-leak theory.
The Soviets were lying, of course.
They were running what was not just a laboratory but a full-scale anthrax factory in Sverdlovsk - now again called Yekaterinburg, for Catherine the Great. (Back in January 2009, when I was writing spy novels, I paid a trip to Yekaterinburg. It’s about 1000 miles east of Moscow, and the big Soviet nuclear closed cities are in the neighborhood. It was hilly and cold and went to bed early; I don’t remember much else.) Anyway, a technician forgot to replace a filter on a vent and death poured out until the next shift.
Are you sensing a theme here? Biological weapons, fun for the whole family.
Regardless, the Soviets had their story and they were sticking to it.
And D.A. Henderson seems to have believed the Soviet denials. At the least he almost couldn’t believe they would be foolish enough to weaponize smallpox. “By 1990 I believed the shadow of smallpox had finally lifted and the disease was consigned to history,” he wrote in his memoir, Smallpox: The Death of a Disease.
But at some point between 1995 and 1997 American intelligence agencies connected him directly to Ken Alibek. Alibek convinced him of "the disturbing reality of a massive and sophisticated [Soviet] biological weapons capability.”
To say the least, this revelation discomfited Henderson. It’s easy to understand why.
He had hoped the world would eliminate smallpox, finishing the job he had started. Instead the virus had become a bigger threat than it had been in at least a generation, in part because the World Health Organization had destroyed most of the world’s supply of smallpox vaccine in the mid-1980s because it did not want to pay $25,000 a year to keep 200 million doses in storage.
By 1997, Henderson wanted to make sure policymakers and public health experts were properly frightened of smallpox - and of bioterrorism generally. His motives appear to have been entirely pure. He did not want this fight. But he had seen what smallpox could do firsthand and he wanted the United States to be prepared.
Henderson began to organize seminars, hold tabletop games, and look for money for a permanent center for civilian biodefense. But even with his credentials, and even after a Saudi sheikh named Osama bin Laden bombed American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, Henderson had a hard time convincing anyone of the gravity of the threat. Only in 2000 did he manage to win funding for his new center, and for only two years.
Then Bruce Ivins - sneaky, crazy, dangerous Bruce Ivins - came along.
(END OF PART ONE)