Plague Wars

“Plague Wars”, by Tom Mangold and Jeff Goldberg, Macmillan, £18-99p.

When reports appeared of an outbreak of a mysterious brain virus which claimed the
lives of five people in New York, the City’s then mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, gave orders for the spraying of insecticide over the city and for insect repellent to be distributed. Scientists claimed that the virus – St.Louis encephalitis – had been borne by mosquitoes and birds, and it was assumed that Mother Nature had simply carried out one of her timely reminders of our mortality and susceptibility to old diseases dressed in new clothes.

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) investigated the deaths and although they did not
conclude that it was evidence of a biological attack on a civilian population, they have discovered two disturbing things. First, the origin of the disease is a previously unknown variant of West Nile virus which has never previously appeared in the USA. Second, an Iraqi defector had, six months earlier, alerted the CIA that Saddam Hussein was developing a strain of the West Nile virus for use as a biological weapon. The report had been dismissed as nonsense.

These reports were a timely scene setter for Mangold and Goldberg. Their “Plague Wars” -republished in a new edition in 2001 – should be required reading by those responsible for our security.

Although their book occasionally suffers from a strain of journalese, which sometimes makes it read like a script for a television documentary, this should not deter potential readers.

Mangold’s long and distinguished career with BBC’s Panorama and Goldberg’s work for
independent television perhaps render this mild criticism inevitable. By the same token there is an
immediacy and an urgency which breathes through this highly accessible account.

The first part of the book rehearses the history of biological weapons – and the United Kingdom’s creative role in encouraging the United States to support the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention of 1970. When the Soviet Union signed up it was heralded as a model treaty and the basis on which the Cold War’s nuclear arms race might also be ended. The reality was that as soon as the ink has dried the Soviet Union duped the West and continued to manufacture deadly biological weapons. The technology would later be exported and,as Soviet defectors would subsequently reveal, military dictators such as Saddam would be the beneficiaries.

Throughout the 1970s manufacture and experiments continued unabated. In 1979 the worst accident in the history of biological weapons production occurred at a top secret military facility in Sverdlovsk – now known once more by the old White Russian name of Ekaterinburg. Anthrax spores contaminated the area around the site and perhaps as many as 600 people died. The Soviets instigated a massive cover-up, to deceive both the West and their own citizens. The truth did not emerge until 1990.

In the same year as the Sverdlovsk contamination, 1979, Saddam Hussein came to power in Iraq.

Throughout the 1980s Iraq’s scientists developed a biological weapons programme – and conducted
inhalation and blast experiments using biological agents of various kinds on large animals, beagles, sheep, and Rhesus monkeys. Production of anthrax and botulinum toxin began in 1989. Mangold and Goldberg say that Iraq embarked on a programme to develop Plague as an offensive weapon. These chilling realities read like a sequel to C.S.Lewis’s “That Hideous Strength,” written in 1943.

Verification of these new evils was never likely to be easy and the withdrawal of weapons inspectors in Iraq made it impossible. Of course, this book predates the 9:11 attack on New York in 2001 and the commencement of the War in Iraq in 2003.

This account ends with a sobering description of the preparations which the civil authorities in New York were at that time making for a biological attack. Comparing New York’s plans with the United Kingdom, the authors remark on the absence of adequate planning in British cities susceptible to attack.

Chilling to then read the accounts of West Nile encephalitis and the spraying of public buildings which appeared after the publication of this book. Just as disturbing is the thought that such an attack would be unannounced and no responsibility taken for it. And, how will we tell when such an attack is natural or deliberate?