Everything Is Going to Kill Everybody: The Terrifyingly Real Ways the World Wants You Dead - Robert Brockway (2010)
Chapter 17. BIOTECH LETHALITY
SOME OF THE WORLD’S most devastating diseases, from the H1N1 “swine flu” to SARS, have made the jump from animal to man naturally. Though transspecies diseases have fortunately been relatively low mortality in recent years, new variants of the flu have historically been potential extinction-level events. Consider the Spanish flu of 1918, whose total estimated death count varies from 30 to 50 million. That’s more fatalities within a year than in most of America’s major wars of the last century. It actually was a kind of swine flu; it jumped from pigs to humans and eventually wiped out the equivalent of a large country. Talk about your rags-to-riches story! We’re now more reliant on livestock than ever, and it’s all conglomerated—roughly 80 percent of America’s beef is currently processed by less than half a dozen companies, and a full third of the entire country’s milk comes from one single solitary company. You can easily see why an outbreak in a food processing factory, in today’s world, could kill on a much larger scale than it could’ve a century ago. Thanks to corporate rule, we not only wear the same brand of T-shirts, buy the same brand of coffee, and watch the same TV shows, but we also share a common pool of food products. And that’s where we drink all of our milk from!
Out of the contagion pool!
Less Disturbing Pools Than the “Contagion Pool”
· Unchlorinated swingers’ hot tub
· Disused hobo bathhouse
· Office pool on estimated time of coworker’s newborn baby suffering crib death.
According to the above numbers, if a major dairy supply were to be contaminated, there’s a one in three chance that you’d end up drinking it. So here’s a worrying thought: We have security measures at airports and train stations … but how well-protected and monitored are the dairies? Terrorists got pilots’ licenses; I’m betting that they can get jobs as milk skimmers at the competitive rate of three fifty an hour and half a pound of free cheese per meal break.
To make matters worse, not only is there contamination in our food distribution, the actual livestock themselves aren’t much better. Thanks to the overuse of antibiotics in feed animals, superresistant diseases are rapidly on the rise. That cow whose sole purpose in life is to turn its ass into delicious cheeseburgers isn’t exactly going to get primary care; farmers have chosen to mass dose their herds with antibiotics and hope to catch what they can. This not only leads to a reduced efficiency in the cows’ immune systems, but in our species’ as well. That cow’s last meal probably contains those same antibiotics (I mean, what’s he gonna order, steak?) and that makes it your current meal, if you then eat said cow. So human antibiotics have an overall reduction in efficiency because of mass-medicated cattle, and that sucks (fuck you, cows—no wonder we eat you), but Dr. Arjun Srinivasan, an epidemiologist with the CDC, actually thinks that, just considering the sheer amount of antibiotics dumped into the food supply, antibiotic overdose in animals may actually endanger the human race more than any potential overdose in the humans themselves.
But this is all so nebulous: Biotech “affecting the immune systems of cattle” isn’t exactly a sexy apocalypse. So let’s consider the actual effects one of these animal-spread pathogens could take. For example, Toxoplasma gondii. It lives most of its life in rats, but can only mature to adulthood in the belly of a feline. When it’s ready, it causes the host rat to seek out and loiter around cat urine—because where there’s cat piss, there are cats—and, when the rat is inevitably eaten, the parasite is successfully transferred to the feline host. Toxoplasma gondii is an organism that possesses its host and fosters a death wish, because it can thrive only if the host dies. But fuck those rats, anyway. That couldn’t possibly affect you, right?
Well, actually, half of the entire human population is infected with Toxoplasma gondii. Not “throughout history.” Not just “at risk.” But literally and presently fully infected.
Arguments Against Owning a Cat
· They pee on everything.
· They don’t really do tricks.
· They don’t really like you.
· They’re infested with things that infect your brain and drive you insane.
This is particularly bad, because severe cases of toxoplasmosis manifest as full-blown paranoid schizophrenia: voices, delusions, hysteria—the works. Toxoplasmosis is the reason that pregnant women aren’t supposed to handle cat litter, why newborn babies aren’t supposed to be around cats, and though there’s no actual basis to believe it, it certainly goes a long way toward explaining crazy cat-collecting ladies if they’re actually infected by mind-controlling parasites harbored within the cats themselves. Even in minor cases in people whose immune systems aren’t compromised (fifty/fifty chance says that’s you), the majority of infected males suffer from neuroses, guilt, and nervousness from even mild cases, while infected females are more aggressive and outgoing … and have drastically heightened sex drives. That explains why those cat ladies put out so easy, am I right, fellas? Hell yeah! Maybe our parasites can get together and high-five later.
It’s basically a viral parasite that transforms women into ballcrushers and men into pussies. That’s a little unsettling, but hey, gender roles are different in modern times anyway. No harm, no foul. Until you consider that these side effects could be dangerously exploited, because—like it or not—the modern military remains primarily male. Not hard to see the appeal of a biologically engineered toxoplasma used as a weapon—an army of butch Jack Dempsey hard-asses instantly emasculated into nebbish, Woody Allen-style timidity, too insecure about their manhood to order a steak correctly, much less fire eighteen bullets into the face of a rampaging RoboNazi (hey, it’s the future, right? I’m just assuming we’ll fight enemies a little cooler and less ambiguous than “brown people who don’t live on this continent” by then).
And remember, those are mild cases. In addition to schizophrenia, severe cases manifest side effects like blindness, cerebral palsy, severely diminished coordination, and even death. Toxoplasma infections are mostly kept in check by our immune systems, so severe cases are rare. But then, there are any number of reasons why our immune systems might not be up to snuff, from the serious—such as AIDS or chemotherapy—to something as mundane as the flu. With half of the population already harboring gondii parasites, any immune-suppressing assistance at all, and gondii could start wiping us all out.
But as terrible as the severe cases can be, we’re still alive. If we catch it in time, it might not be an apocalyptic-level event, even if superstrains were engineered. But keep in mind that it takes only one mutation for the host roles to change.
If that happens, we could very well become the rats, gestating the parasite until it decides it’s time to move on to something better. So maybe tomorrow’s the day you wake up loving the distinct musk of lion piss, and it’s some lion’s turn to get uncontrollably horny and schizo. Don’t outright dismiss the likelihood of this kind of mutation, either. Consider that with military funding and advances in modern science, it would be a snap to modify a few strands of DNA and let a modified gondii loose. It sure would make the army’s job a lot easier, after all, if all of their enemies inexplicably began loving the smell of recently plucked hand grenades.
But hey, guys, look at the bright side: If there’s a death wish–inspiring parasite living in all of our brains, at least it’s paying the rent in skanks.
So far, we’ve talked about how biotechnology has not only elevated the threat level of the viruses themselves, but also, through our extensive use of agricultural biotechnology, created a mass contaminate pool larger than any in the history of the human race; we all drink from the same watering hole (technically it’s a milk hole, but that’s just pornographic), so let’s move on from the general dangers and really home in on sweet, sweet genocide: In August 2000, a bacterium named Klebsiella pneumoniae (that’s right, in the same genus as that other world-destroying bacteria) was discovered in New York University’s Tisch Hospital. Dr. Roger Wetherbee, a physician there, describes it most succinctly in this excerpt from a New Yorker article:
“It was literally resistant to every meaningful antibiotic that we had.” The microbe was sensitive only to a drug called colistin, which had been developed decades earlier and largely abandoned as a systemic treatment, because it can severely damage the kidneys. “So we had this report, and I looked at it and said to myself, ‘My God, this is an organism that basically we can’t treat.’”
That sounds like dialogue from a bad action movie. Did he dramatically remove his glasses after saying “my God”? Did motherfucking lightning strike when he said “this is an organism that basically we can’t treat”? Thankfully, this episode in New York was the only major outbreak of this strain in the United States. But unfortunately, this particular strain of Klebsiella had refined itself so extensively in the clinical environment—thriving on weak patients, immunizing itself to antibiotics—that it couldn’t even be killed with industrial disinfectants.
Industrial disinfectants are hard core; I think that’s what finally killed John Wayne; I think that’s what finally toppled Communism—hell, that’s probably what killed disco! Though a form of bleach did eventually kill Klebsiella pneumoniae, it was eventually proven resistant to everything from ammonia to phenol. This sounds unkillable, like the goddamn Highlander of bacterium. I think disease just found its first superhero.
If You Liked That Murphy Brown Reference, You May Also Enjoy
· Your grandchildren
· Chicks in shoulder pads
Huge precautions were taken, and hospital staff basically donned biohazard suits and flamethrowers to burn the infected before they could be turned. That hospital should have been more sterile than a Murphy Brown episode, and yet still the bacteria thrived. Patients started getting bloodstream infections from the bacterium, which is the most lethal infection one can get, before hospital staff eventually contained it. By that time, nearly half of all those infected had died. This was in a space as confined as a university hospital, with strict containment procedures and experience in combating the spread of disease. Imagine if this outbreak had occurred anywhere else? With this high a mortality rate, it could have halved the world’s population practically overnight.
Thank God our dairies are so well protected!
But hey, why even develop new microscopic murderers when the classics never go out of style? Scientists found they were recently able to synthesize the polio virus from scratch, presumably in an effort to give us all tiny T-rex arms so we can’t fight back when the government Thought Clerics come a-calling. It’s been theorized that the same process, a rather simple one by all indications, could also be used to synthetically manufacture similar viruses. But any contender would have to have a simple cell structure like polio, so they still can’t do anything too complicated, and at least that’s somewhat consoling … if you stop reading this chapter right now.
Other “simple” viruses in this category include both Ebola and that superlethal Spanish flu from 1918.
That’s already happened, actually. Researchers have already synthesized Ebola. They used something called “reverse genetics” (which is presumably just like regular genetics but practiced only on Opposite Day), and presto!
You’ve done it, scientists!
You’ve re-created one of the scariest viruses on Earth! Now just hand it over to your boss—the unsettling fellow in the iron face mask and velvet cloak who commutes to the job site every day in a floating castle—and I’m sure he’ll be quite responsible with it. He might even promote you!
To an early death.
Shit, are you paying attention, Hollywood? That’s how you write a one-liner.
But that’s not to say this technique needs a full lab of professionals to replicate. No, all that’s needed is a rudimentary set of chemistry tools and the genetic sequence of what you want to replicate. All of that information—the technique, the tools needed, and even the genetic sequence of the Spanish flu—is, like gaping anuses and furries, just waiting to ruin your life forever … on the internet.
Other Atrocities That the Internet Is Directly Responsible For
· 2 Girls 1 Cup
· A Database of Plagues
· This book
So far, we’ve been talking about accidental by-products or potentially utilized biological weapons, but there’s a far more likely way that the biotech apocalypse could happen: completely on accident.
Australian researchers, in an attempt to control the exploding number of wild mice, engineered a variant of mousepox intended to sterilize the population. But they screwed up and inserted one little extra gene, and what was supposed to be just contagious birth control instead became an amazingly lethal plague, with fatality rates approaching 100 percent. The virus spread like wildfire, and the researchers just barely managed to hold it in check. The truly frightening part, however, was the virus’ remarkable similarities to human smallpox. It just had a much higher mortality rate and a more aggressive rate of infection.
Now, we can play a tiny funeral dirge for Fieval and all his pals later, because the main factor here is the similarity between mousepox and the human equivalent. As it stands, we have nearly no immune response to the smallpox virus—it was virtually wiped from the planet, so there is no cause to vaccinate against it. However, if it were to return right now, researchers estimate the fatality rate at nearly 20 percent. That’s one in five people. And that’s regular smallpox. If this engineered mousepox were to cross over, not only could the fatality rate be around 100 percent, but the virus has proven even more contagious than its traditional counterpart. And worst: We have no vaccine for it. Smallpox could be prevented, but because of that one little altered gene, there would be no established defense against the modified mousepox. The researchers assure us that there is no immediate danger from this super mousepox; though the strains are quite similar, it is still impossible for the virus to bridge that gap between human and mice genetic dissimilarities and endanger humanity.
So we were lucky; the little bit of dissimilarity between our DNA made this virus a nonissue for humans … but this was all well before the Canadians started screwing around with mouse spunk, of course.
We’ve established the impetus to willingly expose ourselves to genetically altered materials; the fact that more and more experimentation is resulting in accidentally created, never-before-seen diseases; and, finally, the existence of a new bridge between humanity and these lab animals that the diseases can use to cross over. I think it’s officially time to start getting scared … and all of that isn’t even factoring in the horrifying and now very real potential for accidental pregnancy via supermouse rape. Hey, it could happen. You might think it pretty unlikely that you’ll be catching a tiny rodent facial anytime in the near future, but remember, thanks to that endurance experiment, some rodents are now very aggressive, hypersexual, freakishly strong, and untiring. Even if they’re not actively out trying to bone humanity, somebody has just significantly upped the odds of you getting caught in a never-ending supermouse orgy.
Right in the path of their deadly plague orgasms.