As one of my followers wrote:
… an extraordinary demonstration of the power of weaponized biology
… imagine a jihadist group or other criminal organization
The ability to recognize new diseases quickly and to develop treatments and vaccines has become a cornerstone of national defense.
The Century of Bioweapons
The coronavirus’s disruptive effects will inevitably inspire evil minds to action.
Walter Russell Mead
April 27, 2020 6:18 pm ET Print 28 April 2020
A laboratory scientist cultures coronavirus for testing in Frederick, Md., March 19.
PHOTO: ANDREW HARNIK/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Covid-19 does not appear to be a genetically engineered plague unleashed on the world by supervillains—but its massive global impact shows how effective such a weapon could be. That will have consequences.
The current pandemic, we may hope, won’t live up to its full hype. It may be less destructive and even less costly than many feared. Reliable treatments may soon become available, and societies will figure out ways to protect the most vulnerable while allowing the normal business of life to resume. Covid-19 will presumably at some point become through antiviral therapies a manageable hazard, like HIV/AIDS before it, or be conquered by a vaccine.
Yet less than three months after the first known Covid-19 death in the U.S., more Americans have died of this disease than fell in battle during the Vietnam War. It has disrupted more lives, thrown more people out of work, and at least temporarily closed more businesses than the Great Depression.
And of course the U.S. is not alone. Much of the world has been shut down; global trade has been upended in ways not seen since World War II, and the spreading economic and geopolitical fallout from the pandemic is already on course to dwarf the consequences of the 2008-09 financial crisis.
The political consequences of the pandemic are only beginning to emerge. In Europe it has ripped open the wounds left by the financial crisis, with indebted southern countries furious over what they see as a lack of solidarity from the frugal north.
Yet by the standards of past pandemics, Covid-19 is a relatively mild disease. Many of those infected appear to remain asymptomatic; only a very small percentage of cases require hospitalization, and of those, more end in recovery than in death. World-wide, Covid-19 has killed about 200,000 people. That estimate is subject to revision, and the numbers will grow, but compared with the Spanish influenza, smallpox or the Black Death, Covid-19 has a long way to go.
It turns out, however, that our technologically sophisticated global way of life is a lot more vulnerable to disruption than the simpler world of our ancestors. Not only can diseases that once traveled on foot or horseback now hitch rides on jet aircraft; the intricately balanced elements of a modern economy can be thrown into chaos by a few weeks of quarantine.
These truths mean that both at the national and global level we will have to devote far greater resources to public health. But they mean more than that. There has been much controversy over whether the coronavirus escaped from a wet market or a research laboratory. Wherever it came from, the virus has provided the world with an extraordinary demonstration of the power of weaponized biology.
The 20th century was the Age of Physics, when scientists first learned to split the atom and create weapons powerful enough to destroy civilization. The 21st century looks now to be an Age of Biology, when the capacity to unleash gene-engineered plagues on one’s opponents—or their crops—can provide countries with a strategic advantage.
Imagine a country whose scientists produced something like the coronavirus and also a vaccine. The virus could be released, causing chaos and destruction, but one could protect one’s own people from the plague—and offer the vaccine to the world if one’s demands were met. Now imagine a jihadist group or other criminal organization with the same power.
Over time, the danger will grow as humanity develops better and more efficient ways to hack the genetic code and create organisms on demand. Biological laboratories, even sophisticated ones, are cheaper to build and easier to hide than the factories necessary to enrich uranium and develop nuclear weapons.
Weaponizing disease was practiced long before the modern era. Attacking Hittites seem to have driven infected people into enemy lands as early as 1000 B.C. In 1346, attacking Mongols catapulted the corpses of plague victims into the besieged Crimean city of Caffa. More recently, both Axis and Allied governments developed biological weapons during World War II, and Japan deployed them on a significant scale in its war against China—including the use of ceramic bombs containing bubonic-plague-carrying fleas against the city of Ningbo.
In a post-Covid future, some countries and nonstate actors will be tempted to seek the capacity to create plagues, and every country will need to defend against them. The ability to recognize new diseases quickly and to develop treatments and vaccines has become a cornerstone of national defense.
Resilience also matters. Hardening cities, health systems, businesses and supply chains to make them less vulnerable to disruption must be a priority for the future.
This will be hard and expensive, but as Margaret Thatcher used to say, “There is no alternative.” The world has changed, and we must adapt.