Why North Korea is likely to launch a bio attack that we cannot stop

A successful North Korean nuclear attack on another country would guarantee the end of Kim Jong Un’s regime and the destruction of much of his country. But North Korean agents could secretly release a deadly virus in the U.S. that could kill hundreds of millions. Even if we believed North Korea was responsible, we likely couldn’t prove it.

Bioengineered viruses are an ideal weapon. Compared with nuclear weapons they are more deadly, orders of magnitude cheaper and easier to create and launch. Avian flu modified for human-to-human transmission could cause a pandemic some experts believe could kill a billion people. The ensuing economic and social chaos and breakdown in law and order would also cause tremendous fatalities, perhaps even more. Of course, the virus would spread around the world, but North Korea is extremely isolated from international travel and compared to the U.S., Japan, and South Korea, they may not only avoid the pandemic but end up in relatively great shape.

Scientists have warned that weaponized biotechnology and genetically modified organisms pose an “existential threat” to our species. A May 2011 National Defense University study concluded that “there are tangible opportunities for many potential adversaries to acquire, modify, and then manufacture to scale a potential [genetically modified] pathogen.” Such warnings have been largely ignored or played down by the government because of the controversial issues they raise and the political-bureaucratic factors they touch upon.

Nassim Taleb of “Black Swan” fame warns of “the great plague to come that will dominate the planet.” Unlike the largely rural, resilient population that weathered the 1918 flu pandemic (a relatively low-lethality virus), our urbanized society depends on electricity, central water-supply systems, and daily deliveries of food over long distances. Food truck drivers are not likely to risk their lives catching a virus or being attacked by marauders in a pandemic.

A deadly pandemic would quickly cause law and order to break down in cities. People will panic as food stores are quickly sold out or looted. Law enforcement will be stretched to the breaking point. In the aftermath of 2006’s Hurricane Katrina, many truck drivers refused to enter New Orleans without military escort because of the looting and violence. Hundreds of New Orleans police officers deserted the city. Business and government senior executes at a 2006 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting to discuss implications of an influenza pandemic in Europe, concluded that looting and vigilantes would pop up, and martial law would be needed. “Participants urged all sectors to develop contingency plans today that go beyond the typical disaster response to focus on how to respond when the entire fabric of society and the economy falls apart.”[1] The May 2017 issue of Time Magazine (front page photo shown in this article) also warned that we are not prepared for a pandemic, to put it very mildly.

A pandemic caused by a biological attack would require government at all levels to ration urgent care and vital supplies. Hospitals would have to turn sick people away. It takes six months or more to produce a vaccine for a new flu variant or virus. While the public waits for the vaccine to become available, the death toll will rise.

The U.S. government isn’t doing as much as it should to prepare for such a pandemic. No elected or appointed official wants to commission a report finding that millions of Americans will die and almost nothing can be done to prevent it. No government wants to admit that many Americans will probably take advantage of stresses on law enforcement to loot and maraud in the event of a pandemic.

Governments are leery of the bad press they’ll get if word leaks out that they are drafting plans to quarantine portions of the population. A plan to equip the Federal Emergency Management Agency with tools for crowd control led some conspiracy/anti-government critics to protest “government takeover preparations” and “concentration camps” and “police state.” When President George W. Bush suggested deploying the military to help deal with a pandemic he was condemned by groups ranging from the ACLU to the Cato Institute.

Political-bureaucratic factors also make it hard for government to prepare for the pandemic threat. Unlike a new weapon system or health care bill, pandemic preparation provides no congressional pork to dispense and no opportunities for big companies to cash in. The Department of Health and Human Services is the “lead agency” on pandemic planning, but is also a big supporter of bioengineering research. Scientists, universities and biomedical companies don’t want to spook the public by revealing too much about the deadly the biological agents contained in their labs.

The Federal agency most capable of dealing with a pandemic, the Defense Department, is not the lead agency on domestic law and order, the Department of Homeland Security is in charge. Compared with the Pentagon’s huge $534 billion budget and literal army of employees, DHS is not up to the task of saving America from the aftermath of a bioengineered viral pandemic.

The Army National Guard should be trained and equipped (many don’t even have small arms) to do crowd control and massive support of local law enforcement. The Pentagon should also create a Civil Ground Patrol, modeled on the all-volunteer Civil Air Patrol, to start training civilians to assist with pandemic response and recovery operations.

In the absence of government leadership, every American should become a “prepper,” stockpiling not the three days of food and water that the federal government recommends, but enough to last for at least a year. Citizens should acquire the means to protect themselves when the police are overwhelmed. Urbanites need to draft escape plans, since supplying major cities and maintaining law and order there will be particularly difficult.

Many more preparations are needed, but these are the most important. They are all controversial and will very likely not be pursued by government until after the disaster has occurred, when it’s too late.

Dr. Drew Miller, a former intelligence officer, Pentagon Senior Executive Service official, and retired Air Force Reserve Colonel, is director of Advanced Analysis Applications.

[1] Booz, Allen, Hamilton, “Influenza Pandemic Simulation: Implications for the Public and Private Sectors”, report on 2006 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting, 2006