The world is experiencing virulent outbreaks of Ebola and Islamist radicalism.
What if the two threats converge into one?
In June 2001 — a few months before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — a group of leading Democratic national security experts gathered at Andrews Air Force Base to carry out a national security exercise called Dark Winter. Hosted by the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Dark Winter simulated a biological attack on the United States in which terrorists release smallpox virus in three shopping malls in Oklahoma City, Philadelphia and Atlanta.
In the first few days, 1,000 people are infected and 300 die. According to the exercise, “Most hospitals report grossly inadequate supplies and insufficient isolation rooms” (sound familiar?). Soon “Increasingly anxious crowds mob vaccination clinics,” and police and National Guard units are called in to suppress violence. The governor of Oklahoma closes all schools and cancels all public gatherings. Thanks to reluctance of drivers to make deliveries to affected areas, there are food shortages and panic buying. The attorney general prepares options for imposing martial law, including “prohibition of free assembly, a national travel ban, quarantine of certain areas, suspension of the writ of habeas corpus [i.e arrest without due process], and/or military trials in the event the court system becomes dysfunctional.” The unfolding chaos is documented in mock news broadcasts.
After 13 days, 16,000 smallpox cases have been reported in 25 states and 1,000 people have died. Vaccine supplies have been depleted. Canada and Mexico have closed their borders to the United States. It has become logistically impossible to identify and isolate smallpox victims and their contacts to prevent the disease from spreading. Trading on the stock exchanged is suspended. International commerce grinds to a halt. No country in the world will allow flights originating in or transiting through the United States to land. States have closed their borders with other states. There are riots and looting throughout the country.
After 25 days, the number of cases has risen to 30,000, with 10,000 expected to die, and the National Security Council is advised that, absent large scale and successful vaccination programs, the epidemic “could conceivably comprise as many as 3,000,000 cases of smallpox and lead to 1,000,000 deaths.”
So what about Ebola?
Unlike smallpox, which is hard to come by, the Ebola infection is raging right now in parts of Africa where Islamist extremists could have easy access. As physician Scott Gottlieb of the American Enterprise Institute points out, with Ebola, “Mother Nature has created the perfect bioweapon in many respects, as long as the attacker has suicidal aspirations.” Ebola has up to a 21-day incubation period — more than enough time for terrorists to infect themselves and then come here with the virus. In a nightmare scenario, suicide bombers infected with Ebola could blow themselves up in a crowded place — say, shopping malls in Oklahoma City, Philadelphia and Atlanta — spreading infected tissue and bodily fluids.
Or, the virus could also be released more subtly. Terrorists could collect samples of infected body fluids, and then place them on doorknobs, handrails or airplane tray tables, allowing Ebola to spread quietly before officials even realize that a biological attack has taken place.
Think it can’t happen? If an Ebola-infected Liberian, Thomas Eric Duncan, was able to fly to Dallas, what is to stop an Ebola-infected terrorist from doing the same? And if our health-care system was unable to handle a single Ebola patient, imagine what would happen if 50, 100 or more Ebola patients started showing up at U.S. hospitals. Already we have seen schools closed in Dallas and Cleveland and a ship denied entry in Mexico and Belize. It would not require a attack on the level of Dark Winter to cause mass disruptions to our way of life and our economy.
Moreover, in the Dark Winter exercise, the United States had a stockpile of 12.5 million doses of smallpox vaccine available. Today, there is no stockpile of Ebola vaccine. Indeed, there is no proven Ebola vaccine at all. There are promising experimental treatments, and the government is racing to ramp up production. But even if these prove effective, it would be impossible to quickly produce enough to deal with a Dark Winter scenario.
Then there is the impact of all the false assurances from President Obama that Ebola was unlikely to reach our shores and that if it did that “our doctors, our nurses and our medical staff are trained, are ready, and are able to deal with a possible case safely.” The American people’s trust in our government has been severely undermined — and with it the ability of public health officials to manage a mass outbreak.
The nation is woefully unprepared for an Ebola outbreak, much less an Ebola attack. If terrorists were to turn Ebola into a crude terror weapon, we could be in for a Dark Winter indeed.