Have you ever imagined what it would be like if villains could email a respiratory virus to the world? Do you drift to sleep at night dreaming of the health crises to come as octogenarians steadily expand their ranks?
Laurie Garrett has and does. She’s an award-winning journalist and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and she’s made it her life’s work to uncover the world’s biggest health threats. In an interview with Atlantic senior editor Corby Kummer at The Atlantic Meets the Pacific on Friday, she calmly outlined several very real threats facing the global population. It’s fitting that she was once a plot consultant in the making for Contagion: Hollywood, pay attention.
1. SARS, meet the hajj.
“Quite recently, we’ve had the emergence of another virus: MERS, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, coming out of Saudi Arabia,” Garrett said. “We’re all very, very nervous about it, because the hajj is coming up next week, and at that time, there will be a few million people pouring into Saudi Arabia, and part of the hajj is to walk around…”
“To breath on each other?” offered Kummer.
Garrett laughed — but only a little. “This is a virus, it turns out, probably to come from Egyptian tomb bats, which is very Béla Lugosi, actually. It is very similar to the SARS virus which emerged in China in 2003 and had a very serious outbreak.”
2. Viruses will be the new, lethal spam mail.
When 3-D printing becomes “4-D printing,” Garrett argues, people will be able to send self-replicating viruses across the world in seconds.
“It’s now possible to design your own genomic sequence and to send that sequence to a 3-D printer that is loaded with nucleotides,” she explained. “Some drug companies are already using the 3-D printer mode to transmit necessary information for the production of antigens for vaccines,” she said. “There’s already a phrase in Silicon Valley, '4-D printing,' that refers to creating structures that then self-form once they come out of the 3-D printer. I would argue that in biology, that 4-D printing is self-replication.”
From a national security standpoint, “it’s about information. I can send a sequence to somebody’s printer thousands of miles away, and that sequence is the key to creating a dangerous organism.”
3. Vaccines and the health workers who distribute them are being demonized.
According to Garrett, after the CIA used a fake hepatitis vaccination campaign as a front to try and get into Osama bin Laden’s compound, militant Islamic groups became suspicious of all kinds of vaccination campaigns.
“They have used that as a way to justify a whole campaign that claims that polio vaccinations have to be stopped, (a) because it’s some kind of CIA plot, and (b)… these guys are saying until you stop all the drone attacks, they will kill polio vaccinators. These are unarmed, mostly female volunteers, all over Pakistan, Somalia, Afghanistan, and they’re being targeted for assassinations, for brutality, in the name of Islam,” she said.
4. Scientists are producing new airborne viruses, apparently just for the heck of it.
“The bird flu virus that emerged in 1997 fortunately hasn’t affected many human beings yet, but it has a 66 percent mortality in humans when they do get infected, so it is the single-most lethal virus we have seen in circulation in human beings,” Garrett said.
“What has happened is that a lot of virologists are now, in the name of public health, [performing] experiments that give circulating viruses a capacity that they don’t have in nature to see ‘what if?’ A Dutch lab that was funded by the NIH turned H5N1 into a virus that spread between ferrets through the air – ferrets as a surrogate for humans. And just a few months ago, a Chinese veterinary lab transformed 127 viruses [into] man-made flu, all H5N1.” Five of those were transformed into airborne viruses, she said.
“I don’t think there’s any evil here, but I think that there’s a lot of bizarre, misplaced scientific intent.”
5. Watch out for the octogenarian invasion.
But those in the Western world need not look far for a more mundane but pressing threat: the aging population. “As people age, every society is getting more cancer, more heart disease, more diabetes, more chronic health problems.”
The worst part, Garrett says? “We don’t have an architecture of global health that has a clue how to address these issues.”