Here’s a nightmare scenario. Four Islamic extremists decide to give their lives to the jihad against America. Instead of blowing up the Brooklyn Bridge or flying a fuel-laden airplane into an ExxonMobil refinery outside of Houston, they allow themselves to contract smallpox. This will kill them in about 12 to 14 days. But for roughly 10 of those days, they will not look or feel sick. No one will know that they are smallpox carriers.
One of them goes to the Mall of America. Two others wander about O’Hare and Midway airports. The fourth visits the Chicago train station. Over the course of one week, they each come into contact with maybe 1,000 to 1,500 people each day. Each of those people comes into contact with 100 more each day, who in turn come into contact with, say, 75 more, and on it goes. Unbeknownst to any of them (except the terrorists), many of those people coming into contact with one another are smallpox contagious. None of them will feel it or show it. But in two weeks, they will be either very sick or dead.
By the time the first cases become known to public-health officials, hundreds of thousands of people will have already been exposed. And by then, it will be too late. An epidemic will be loose across the land. The ring containment strategy, which calls for the immediate inoculation of anyone who might come into contact with a smallpox carrier (thus containing an outbreak), will be overwhelmed by the sheer number of cases. In military terms, smallpox is a “force multiplier” that changes the rules of warfare.
If you’re the president of the United States, you have exactly two options: You can either hope that it never happens or preemptively inoculate everyone in the country. That doesn’t seem like a terribly difficult decision until you realize that if you choose the second option, there will be serious side effects, such as vesicular rash and postvaccinial encephalitis, for 0.09% of all Americans. That’s roughly 253,000 people — just about the entire population of Louisville, Kentucky. And for a small number of Americans (up to six per one million), the vaccine will be fatal.
That’s the decision that sits on President Bush’s desk right now. Production of the smallpox vaccine is being ramped up to meet existing demand and to prepare for the distinct possibility of a presidential directive. By this time next year, there should be more than enough to go around. By this summer, there will be enough smallpox-vaccine doses available for people to get “scratched” voluntarily by their general practitioners. (Administration of the smallpox vaccine is an unusual procedure: The dosage is scratched into the skin, rather than injected.) Until there is a better vaccine — or an antiviral medicine that works — the side-effects math won’t change at all.
Chemical and biological warfare has been the nightmare scenario of American military planners, and military planners around the world, ever since the late 1980s and early 1990s, when it became known that the Soviet Union had developed especially virulent strains of both anthrax and smallpox at a secret facility known as the Biopreparat. As word of the Biopreparat’s work spread across intelligence agencies worldwide, the specter of genetically modified anthrax or smallpox loomed. Behind it lurked the possibility of genetically targeted smallpox, anthrax, or serin gas: biological and chemical agents that could, in theory at least, kill Jews but not Arabs, blacks but not whites, Asians but not Caucasians.
That is what warfare will become. When we think of warfare today, we think of Special Operations and Army Rangers, attack helicopters and F-16s, spy satellites and B-52s. All of those have been on full display in the war against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. But the next generation of warfare will be about genetic instruction sets. The winners (or the ones who have the upper hand) will be those who know the genomes of the attacking agents and the proteomics of blocking them. The losers will be those who don’t.
The economy is often transformed by decisions made in Washington, DC. Our present telecommunications infrastructure, from the Internet to satellite television, was a direct by-product of the Defense Department’s need to monitor the Soviet nuclear arsenal and to defend Americans in the event of its use. NASA was as much about spying as it was about space exploration. The Cold War begat the telecommunications infrastructure that we take for granted today.
The war against terrorism will beget something equally impressive and ultimately more important: a genomics industry whose first mission will be to defend the United States against “weaponized” genetically modified chemical and biological agents. As of this writing, how exactly a genomics Manhattan Project will come together remains unclear, but there is no doubt that it must. The consequences of inaction are simply unacceptable.
Consider narcotics. Shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the New York Times reported that Osama bin Laden had funded an effort to develop a genetically modified “super heroin.” Opium is Afghanistan’s primary cash crop and by far its most valuable commodity. The problem, from a narcoterrorist’s cash-flow point of view, has been that there are simply not enough customers. In theory, genetically modified poppy plants could lead to the development of an instantly addictive and wildly potent heroin product that could be introduced to a much broader market segment. Double or triple the number of junkies, and narcoterrorism becomes seriously destabilizing.
As it turns out, bin Laden decided to abandon the super-heroin project and return to a more conventional means of terror. But U.S. intelligence knows that the cartels that control the drug trade in Central and South America are pressing forward with similar experimentation. And they have the means: Those cartels run a $25 billion to $30 billion cash-flow business. More important, they have the motive: Designer drugs are sharply cutting into their market share, particularly among young people.
Facing all these threats — from genetically targeted pathogens to genetically modified narcotics to genetically enhanced designer drugs — the U.S. government has no choice but to underwrite a massive investment in the genomics and proteomics sectors. The problem with venture capital is that it’s impatient and ruthless when expected revenue is not forthcoming. Any large- or small-scale effort to understand genomics and proteomics (the hardware and software of all living things) will inevitably fail before it succeeds. Underwriting the cost of failure, again and again, is not what venture funds are about. The task, then, falls to the government.
The good news is that the United States and Britain have vibrant genomics and proteomics sectors. Much of this work is already funded by government groups (such as the NIH in the United States) and charitable organizations (such as the Wellcome Trust in Britain). Some of it is underwritten by investors who are betting that the code of life will someday be more valuable than computer code. And important companies — such as Compaq, DuPont, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Merck, and Novartis — are making huge bets by investing in genomics or proteomics and by organizing themselves accordingly. The IBM Life Sciences division is viewed internally as the key to the company’s future growth. One strong argument in favor of an HP-Compaq merger has been that it would combine the proteomic computational capabilities of the two companies. Novartis is betting everything on genomics.
This sea change that has come since September 11 — and the very real possibility that more terrible events lie ahead — will be the engine of economic growth for some time. The urgency of the task dictates that neither expense nor effort be spared. Either we master life science or we risk losing our lives.
John Ellis (email@example.com) is a writer and consultant based in New York.