There were 16 pathogens on the terrorist’s list, written in large, spiky scribbles that hunched over the page. Next to each was the incubation period, route of transmission, and expected mortality. Pulmonary plague, contracted when the bacterium responsible for bubonic plague enters the lungs, was at the top of the list. Without treatment, the disease kill everyone it infects. Below were the names of past pandemics: cholera, anthrax. But what struck General Richard B. Myers was something else: Most pathogens don’t affect humans at all. Stem rust, blast, foot-and-mouth disease, avian influenza, swine fever. These were biological weapons intended to attack the world food system.
Myers was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2002, when Navy SEALS found the list in an underground complex in eastern Afghanistan. The US intelligence services already suspected that Al-Qaeda was interested in biological weapons, but it added weight to the idea that, as Myers put it, “they were actually doing it.” Later that year, he said, another intelligence source reported that a group of Al Qaeda operatives ended up in the mountains of the northeast. Iraq, where they tested various pathogens on dogs and goats.
“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 as al Qaeda, as we found out with the World Trade Center in New York City, never completely gives up on an idea, it’s not something you can just dismiss.” In fact, he said, “I think there is other information, probably classified, that would tell you it’s do not the matter, but I am not aware of any of this or aware of talking about it.
Even though al-Qaeda has moved on, other groups seem to have taken over the bioterror: in 2014, a dusty Dell laptop recovered from an ISIS hideout in northern Syria – the ” laptop of death ‘, as was the case later nicknamed by Foreign police– has been shown to contain detailed instructions for the production and spread of bubonic plague using infected animals.
For a potential bioterrorist, Myers says, farms and feedlots are an “easy target.” They are not well secured, and effective pathogens are not particularly difficult to manufacture and deploy. Foot-and-mouth disease, a virus named after the large, swollen blisters it causes on the tongue, mouth and feet of clawed animals, is so contagious that the discovery of a case in a herd usually triggers slaughter of mass. “All you do is put a handkerchief under the nose of a sick animal in Afghanistan, put it in a ziplock bag, come to the United States and drop it off at a food park in Dodge City.” Senator Pat Roberts told a local NPR affiliate. in 2006. “Bingo!
Agriculture is also highly concentrated: three states provide three-quarters of the vegetables in the United States, and 2 percent of feedlots provide three-quarters of the country’s beef. In addition, 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, Pawnee Farm Arlinda Chief, contributed nearly 14 percent.) Monocultures like this are exceptionally vulnerable to disease. They are an all-you-can-eat buffet for parasites and pathogens. With or without the help of a studious terrorist, the world is just as vulnerable to an agricultural pandemic as it was to Covid-19– and, if anything, less prepared to fight it.
To diagnose deadly diseases and develop treatments and vaccines for them, researchers have to work with them in a lab, but very few facilities are secure enough. Foot-and-mouth disease, in particular, is transmitted so easily that the live virus cannot be introduced into the Americas without written permission from the Secretary of Agriculture. The only place researchers can work is the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, built on a low-lying islet 8 miles off the Connecticut coast. (“Sounds lovely,” as Hannibal Lecter, the murderous anti-hero in Thesilenceofthelambswhispered when offered the opportunity to vacation there.)
Plum Island has the advantage of a natural sanitary cordon: the ocean. But it opened in 1954, and its laboratories are dilapidated. They are not certified to treat pathogens that require the highest level of containment, Biosafety level 4. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, BSL-4 microbes are “dangerous and exotic, with a high risk of infections transmitted by aerosols.” Typically, they can infect both animals and humans and have no known treatment or vaccine. Ebola is one of them. The same goes for the more recently emerged Nipah and Hendra viruses. Only three facilities worldwide are currently equipped to accommodate large animals at this level. If there was an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the United States tomorrow, researchers here would have to implore their Canadian, Australian or German counterparts for laboratory space.
That will change next year, when the Department of Homeland Security opens its new $ 1.25 billion lab, the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility. Located in Manhattan, Kansas, a college town in the agricultural heartland of the United States, the NBAF will follow the 21st century trend in infectious disease control: rather than relying on a Plum Island-style geographic barrier for the security, it will use extraordinary technical controls. Here, amidst corn and cattle, researchers will work to protect the food supply from a coming plague.