Nature's Microscopic Weapon of Mass Destruction

As American troops sift through Baghdad rubble looking for evidence of manmade weapons of mass destruction, nature is mounting an increasingly impressive demonstration of the power of her own biological arsenal.

Nature's weapon was launched last November in the Chinese province of Guangdong when a duck farmer came down with what seemed like a severe flu. Thirty years ago the world might never have heard of that disease. Delivery systems were unavailable. But today the world's transportation infrastructure can carry biological threats much more effectively than Iraqi missiles. Microbial diseases spread as quickly as planes fly.

In February the first official case of what came to be known as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) was reported to the World Health Organization (WHO). On March 16 WHO declared the illness a worldwide threat. Three weeks later it urged travellers to Hong Kong or Guangdong province to put off "non-essential" visits.

As of April 7 more than 2,600 people in 18 countries have come down with SARS. Julie Gerberding, director of the US Centers for Disease Control worries out loud about a global pandemic.

The number of people dead from SARS already exceeds the combined deaths of American and British troops in Iraq. Air travel to several Asian locations is grinding to a halt. The economic costs of the disease are approaching a billion dollars and the end is not yet in sight.

On April 5 the Economist reported, "Hong Kong is a ghost town. Offices are shut, conferences cancelled, schools closed and businesses right across the region are reeling." The Australian Financial Review declared, "The nerve centres of Asian economic growth have been virtually paralysed as a result of SARS."

The women's ice hockey world championship in Beijing has been canceled. The Asian Football Confederation postponed qualifying events for 15 nations for the 2004 Athens Olympics. The Port Authority of Thailand declared that all crews sailing from Hong Kong, China, Singapore, Taiwan and Vietnam would be prohibited from leaving their ships. More than 100 ships from SARS-affected countries travel to Bangkok and Laem Chabang ports each month, each with 20 crew members on board.

Bangkok airport now has medical personnel screening incoming passengers. The Australian government has told its citizens who fall ill abroad that they will be barred by health authorities in their guest country from boarding a plane home. Medical authorities insist that the death toll is really quite small. The percentage dying of SARS is similar to those who die of pneumonia. And they point out that unlike the 1918 influenza, whose microbes could travel long distances in the air, SARS is transmitted like the common cold, requiring physical contact or the inhalation of germs expelled by sneezing or coughing.

But such assurances have not stopped people from changing their behavior. In several Asian cities, according to the Australian Review, "People aren't flying, they aren't going to restaurants, they aren't socialising. No metal detector can detect a microbial threat. Taking off one's shoes won't help."

Panic has not yet visited the United States. In part this is because war news has pushed news about SARS off the front pages. In part it is because no one has died of SARS in the U.S., although more than 100 cases have been reported.

But SARS has arrived in Canada. A few days ago Toronto announced its ninth SARS-related death. More than 200,000 people will fly between New York and Toronto this month and many more will fly to and from Chicago and Boston.

More than 700 million people fly across international borders each year.

Globalization has its attractions. Global transportation systems have generated economic growth and cultural understanding. But along with its benefits, the global transportation infrastructure generates costs. In a village, when one family falls ill the entire village is vulnerable to the disease. And so it is in the emerging global village.

It is humbling and instructive to think that some of the commercial airplanes ferrying our troops to Iraq to search for biological weapons may themselves soon be unwittingly carrying biological threats back home.


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