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When the next animal plague strikes, can this Laboratory stop it?

They were 16 the pathogens on the terrorist list, written in high, sharp sketches that ran across the page. Next to each were the incubation period, the route of transmission, and the expected mortality. Pneumonic plague, which is contracted when the bacteria responsible for bubonic plague enters the lungs, was at the top of the list. It is left untreated illness it kills all who pollute it. Farther away were some of the names of the pandemics of the past — cholera, anthrax. But what amazed General Richard B. Myers was something else: most pathogens had no effect on humans. Rusty stalks, rice blast, mouth sores, bird flu, swine cholera. These were biological weapons intended to attack global food system.

Myers was chairman of the General Assembly in 2002 when Navy SEALS found the list in an underground complex in eastern Afghanistan. U.S. intelligence services already suspected this al Qaeda they were interested in biological weapons, but that gave them more weight as Myers said, “they were really doing it.” That same year, he said, another intelligence source reported that a group of Al Qaeda members had ended up in the mountains in the northeast. Iraq, were testing various pathogens in dogs and goats.

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Photo: Djeneba Aduayom

“As far as I know, they never got to the point where it was useful to them in the context of war,” Myers told us. “But since we found Al Qaeda with the World Trade Center in New York, we’re not giving up on an idea. It’s not to be ruled out.” In fact, he said: “I think there is other information that is probably classified no the case, but I’m not aware of all that or I don’t even know how to talk about it ”.

Although al Qaeda has progressed, other groups appear to have witnessed the bioterror: in 2014, a Dell laptop dusted from an ISIS hideout in northern Syria – “doom of laptop”, as later doubled by Foreign policy—It was found that there were specific instructions for the production and spread of bubonic plague using infected animals.

Myers says that for anyone who wants to be a bioterrorist, farms and feed sites are a “soft target”. They are not well certified, and effective pathogens are not particularly difficult to manufacture and spread. Mouth-to-mouth disease, a virus that causes large blisters and swelling in the tongues, mouths and feet of covered animals, is so contagious that finding a case in a flock usually causes carnage. “All you have to do is put a handkerchief on the nose of a sick animal in Afghanistan, put it in a zipper bag, come to the U.S. and leave it in the Dodge City feed yard,” Senator Pat Roberts told a local NPR affiliate. 2006an. “Bingo!”

Agriculture is also highly concentrated: three states supply three-quarters of vegetables in the U.S., and 2% of feed land supplies three-quarters of the country’s meat. Moreover, crops and livestock are genetically uniform. A quarter of the genetic material of the entire American Holstein herd comes from only five bulls. (One of them, Pawnee Farm Chief Arlinda, has helped nearly 14 percent.) Such monocultures are very vulnerable to disease. They are a buffet that can be eaten for pests and pathogens. With or without the help of a terrorist examiner, the world is just as sensitive as an agricultural pandemic Covid-19“And, if anything, less prepared to deal with it.”

To diagnose deadly diseases and develop treatments and vaccines for them, researchers need to work with them in the lab, but there are very few facilities that are safe enough. Oral disease, in particular, is so easily transmitted that a live virus cannot be brought to the U.S. mainland without the written permission of the Secretary of Agriculture. The only place researchers can work with it is the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, built on a small islet 8 miles off the coast of Connecticut. (“It looks charming,” in Hannibal Lecter, as a homicidal antihero The silence of the lambs, he murmured as he was offered a chance to vacation.)

Plum Island has the advantage of a natural sanitary cordon: the ocean. But it opened in 1954 and its laboratories are obsolete. They are not guaranteed to handle pathogens that require the highest level of containment, Level 4 biosafety. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, BSL-4 microbes are “dangerous and exotic, with a high risk of aerosol-transmitted infections.” They can usually infect both animals and humans and are not known to be treated or vaccinated. It is an Ebola. They are also newly created Nipah and Hendra viruses. There are currently only three facilities in the world equipped to accommodate large animals of this level. If oral disease appears in the U.S. tomorrow, researchers here will have to ask members of Canada, Australia or Germany for laboratory space.

That will change next year when the Department of Homeland Security opens a new $ 1.25 billion laboratory at the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility. As the NBAF is located in the heart of the American city of the heart of agriculture in Manhattan, Kansas, the XXI World Conference on Infectious Disease Control. It will continue its century-long trend: instead of relying on a Plum Island-style geographic fence for safety, it will use exceptional engineering controls. Here, between corn and cattle, researchers will work to protect the food supply from pests coming.

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