Every single second of every single day, genetic shifts within the DNA of bacteria and viruses turn once harmless microbes into potential super-pathogens. Fortunately, the vast proportion of such molecular rearrangements is accompanied by a negative side effect, reducing the pathogen’s ability to thrive. Unfortunately for us, when the odds go the other way, brainless and unsympathetic microbes are in control.
The worst of these genetic ‘accidents’ are when large chunks of genes ‘jump’ out of one microbe and into another. When this happens—and it does all the time—the recipient can do new things. The most troubling of these being a new ability to infect humans—a trans-species ‘jump’ from one animal to another—and once inside our bodies, to produce devastating disease.
The transfer of pathogens from animals to humans first began when we domesticated the wolf, and then accelerated over the millennia with sheep, pigs, goats, chickens, horses—you know the list. However, it wasn’t just the fact that we tamed these species, but that we lived with them—dramatically increasing the chance when a mutant formed, it would efficiently jump into a human. And now in modern civilization, where human density is exploding, where bodies increasingly are in contact, we again are responsible for accelerating the odds a super-pathogen will spread like wildfire among us.
While not all these micro-Frankensteins will make us sick, laws of probability tell us some will, and that a subpopulation of these will cause catastrophic disease. However these same laws do not tell us when and where the super-pathogens will emerge, which worries officials at the World Health Organization and at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.
On the upside, if there can be one, we know genetic mutations follow a predictable process, and that the new mutants will likely be susceptible to modern antimicrobial therapies. And, these mutants should emerge at a relatively slow rate, providing some time to prepare and distribute antidotes. Still, many people will likely be infected and die.
But then these scenarios shift to the dark side—to ones where mutants do not spring forth naturally, but through the malicious intent of a person, a group, or a nation state. There are a variety of ways such a weaponized mutant could be disseminated, but few as effective as contaminating the food supply—which is increasingly complex, global and vulnerable. In 2004, Tommy Thompson, then U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services stated, "For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not, you know, attacked our food supply. Because it is so easy to do."
Our public health infrastructure would struggle to cope with sudden large outbreaks. Even worse, conventional antimicrobial therapies might not work at all, especially if the pathogen had been purposefully altered. Anticipating this threat, the U.S. and other nations have created large counter-bioterrorism programs to identify points of vulnerability, to evaluate the effectiveness of current food safety systems, and then to design and implement control procedures.
But if we’re so vulnerable, why haven’t we seen more attacks? Is it because assaults on our food supply are simply too difficult to carry out? Are our food safety programs so highly effective? Or, does it mean that would-be terrorists see this mode of warfare as immoral?
So far, the majority of known cases of intentional food contamination have occurred in homes, with a smaller number at retail food establishments. Probably the most notable, and the single largest recorded bioterrorism attack in this country, happened in 1984 when a religious group, intent on getting some of their members elected to public office, contaminated salad bars with Salmonella. In the end, they lost the election but they were still able to infect over 700 people.
As someone inside the system, I witnessed another attack—one carried out by a deranged mind with pure evil at its core. Please understand the executor wasn’t a member of a foreign terror group or a religious cult, but instead someone highly trusted and situated deep within the nation’s food defense system. We were told the incident had been permanently classified, and that leaking any information would result in severe penalties.
I did as I was told, but now find it unconscionable to remain silent.
You need to know what happened.