Imagine that a small group of ter­ror­ists delib­er­ately infect them­selves with smallpox and then walk around London, spreading it to the pop­u­lace. How much could the ter­rible dis­ease pro­lif­erate before the world real­ized some­thing was amiss?

This unset­tling ques­tion is at the heart of new com­puter model showing how a bioter­rorism attack in one city could quickly become the world’s problem. Sci­en­tists started off with the hypo­thet­ical release of smallpox in London, New York, Paris and other major cities, then sim­u­lated how trav­elers would carry the virus to a host of other coun­tries. Their con­clu­sion: In the best-​​case sce­nario, smallpox could spread to two to four nations before doc­tors man­aged to diag­nose it. Still ahead would lie the mon­u­mental task of quar­an­ti­ning the infected, dis­trib­uting vac­cines and tracing the source of the outbreak.

Pre­vious research into bioter­rorism have indi­cated that Western cities, with their pro­to­cols and vac­cines, are pretty well pre­pared to handle a bio­log­ical attack, says Alessandro Vespig­nani, a com­puter and health-​​sciences pro­fessor at Boston’s North­eastern Uni­ver­sity. But in a paper in this month’s Sci­en­tific Reports (don’t worry, it was vetted for international-​​security issues)he and his fellow researchers argue that the assump­tion of local readi­ness is missing the big pic­ture. “The problem is that most of those studies don’t con­sider the global dimen­sions of the event,” Vespig­nani says. “Before you even realize there is an out­break, it might already be in other places. That changes the game.”

One major danger: From London, the smallpox might spread to coun­tries that don’t have the health infra­struc­ture of the Western world. In these places it could become potent pan­demics that might wash over into still more nations. And that’s not only pos­sible for attacks in cities near the less-​​developed cor­ners of the world. No matter what metrop­olis a bioter­rorist tar­gets for harm, the dis­per­sion of dis­ease unfolds more or less the same way, at least according to the com­puter model.

 

 

Read the article at The Atlantic Cities →