Apocalypse how – can our cities handle a biological attack?

shutterstock_280697003On the eve of Halloween 1938, a radio broadcast of War of the Worlds spread panic across American cities. Motorways were gridlocked as terrified inhabitants fled San Francisco and other cities. While this report of mass panic was subsequently proven to be a hoax, it provides insight to the challenges of mass evacuations.

At the time of the broadcast, San Francisco had a population of around 630,000, which has steadily risen to 850,000 today. By global scales, San Francisco is not a big city compared to London at 8.6 million or Tokyo at 38 million. If a mass exodus seemed unfeasible in 1938, modern urban environments pose far greater challenges.  Responding to epidemic outbreaks and biological attacks in densely populated areas is an increasing concern; something that future architects, urban designers and engineers will need to take into consideration.

Biological warfare in cities is not a new threat; numerous historical examples exist of biological weapons being used in conflict. In 600 BC, Solon of Athens used the purgative herb, hellebore (skunk cabbage), to assist his siege of Krissa. Around 500 years later, the Italian emperor, Barbarossa, poisoned the wells of Tortona with dead bodies. Meanwhile, Spanish forces supplied their French enemies with wine contaminated with the blood of leprosy patients.  Santé!

Modern cities no longer have walls over which to hurl plague-filled corpses or single wells to poison. Arguably however, the scientific revolution led to biological warfare becoming increasingly sophisticated. The development of modern microbiology allowed specific pathogens to be isolated and subsequently cultivated to produce stocks, ready for deployment in any city at any chosen time.

Research concerning biological attacks on major cities has been conducted. However, many of these studies were conducted in secret and guided by questionable ethics. In 1950, for example, a classified research experiment involved releasing a fog of bacteria across San Francisco from an offshore Navy Vessel, infecting 800,000 people in the Bay area alone. The bacteria used, Serratia marcescens, is normally harmless to humans but Stanford University Hospital raised a public health concern after a reported outbreak of S. marcescens-related urinary tract infections. Undeterred, the government continued with its covert experiments across the US.

shutterstock_267628607Some years later- this time on the east coast- military researchers dropped lightbulbs filled with Bacillus Subtilis, a harmless bacteria used to model anthrax, onto the subway tracks of midtown Manhattan. The bacteria spread for miles throughout the subway system and highlighted an effective exposure mechanism for potential biological attacks.

National security operators are so keen to conduct this sort of research because biological warfare is an increasingly alarming and realistic concern. Biological reagents can be distributed anonymously and discreetly, so they present multiple advantages for individuals looking to commit acts of terror. With delayed onset, they also allow an attacker to evacuate safely without the immediacy of an explosion. Another major benefit is self-propagation, also referred to as secondary spread, which magnifies the effect of the reagents. Rendering widespread havoc requires nothing more than a free-mixing, dense population: making cities an ideal target.

If there is one thing that can save a city from an outbreak, it is data. One of the biggest sources of data in a city is surveillance. While surveillance and population monitoring are nothing new, data generated by these mechanisms is now being applied in innovative ways.shutterstock_228162115

In the event of a disaster, rapid collection of reliable information is vital to coordinating an effective response. In emergency situations, the environment is typically changing rapidly and the pre-disaster information is no longer valid. Although cities are rich in data about their geography, infrastructure and population, collating these layers into a useful model is challenging.

Models can project the development of an emergency situation a short time into the future to assess multiple outcomes over the coming hours, days or weeks. By combining tools such as Agent-Based Modelling (ABM) and Geographic Information System (GIS), researchers can explore how individuals behave within social and physical environments. ABM replicates diversity in the modelled population by attributing certain behaviours and interactions to individuals or groups. This more closely resembles the multicultural dynamic of a city and takes into account how different communities might react to the same situation. As satellites, CCTV and other surveillance methods have allowed us to map spaces in real time, advances in computational modelling will allow us to add social phenomena into that equation.

Taking part in modern life without leaving a digital trace is all but impossible, but what about your biological record? Increasing the depth of surveillance in future cites from the digital to the molecular level could have significant implications for healthcare in urban centres. Decades of research have shown that our genes hugely influence how susceptible we are to disease. Like ABM, advances in molecular biology such as next generation sequencing, help predict how an individual will respond to a pathogen and how effective a certain treatment will be.

shutterstock_221098414So what can this mean? A future city falls victim to a biological attack. Within hours- before the first symptoms manifest- the agent has been identified from a routine saliva swab taken from a resident. Since her genome was sequenced at birth, it is already known that she carries a gene mutation linked with high susceptibility to this pathogen. The pathogen, sequenced at the same time, is identified as a strain resistant to three different antibiotics. The worker is informed and immediately begins treatment. Her travel is reviewed and those she came into contact with are sampled, sequenced and also receive tailored treatments. Genetic counsellors speak directly to those with a history of failing to take medication, ensuring that they understand the risks. The sequence and movement data are used to identify the time and location of the release and a decontamination procedure is conducted. The attack is contained.

This scenario may sound like science fiction, but all of these capabilities and technologies exist. However, they are not yet linked through a unified system of data compilation; which would fully integrate these technologies into our lives. Future cities are ideally placed to utilise current scientific advances to improve the health and wellbeing of their inhabitants, but how this will influence urban design and what public attitudes towards this will be, are as yet unknown.

Bentley Crudgington is studying for a PhD in Virology.

Images: Biological warfare, Monika Hunackova; San Francisco, Stefano Termanini; anthrax bacterium, royaltystockphoto.com; data, Mclek; scientist, Carlos E. Santa Maria.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *