Ben-Gurion’s Parable

Doug Samuelson

The group gathered to watch the Super Bowl dived into the snacks and drinks as the pregame commentators chattered on. Mostly the partygoers ignored the commentators, but then Jim, an OR/MS analyst who had done quite a bit of work on healthcare, noticed a sidebar story about the Zika virus outbreak in Brazil. The commentator was explaining how this new disease outbreak could jeopardize the Olympics, as people were reluctant to make reservations to attend or were canceling reservations already made.

“Well, at least they’re paying some attention to disease threats now,” Jim growled. “Now if only we could get them to pay attention to the right one!”

His friends Jane and Fred, sitting nearest to him, acknowledged his comment with raised eyebrows. “This one sounds bad enough to me,” Jane offered, “even though that Brazilian health official they just quoted said it would turn out to be no big deal because the disease is mosquito-borne, and the Olympics will be during winter in the Southern Hemisphere, when the mosquitoes aren’t very active.”

“Yeah, right,” Jim snorted scornfully. “Except Rio is tropical, so it never gets cold enough to squelch the mosquitoes. But what that time of year also is, is the height of flu season, and flu is a much bigger threat.”

“Flu? Just flu?” Fred asked skeptically.

“Yeah, just flu, and that’s the point,” Jim responded. “The deadliest pandemic in history was the 1918 flu – Spanish flu, they called it, although historians’ opinions nowadays point to an origin in Kansas. It killed somewhere upward of 50 million people, worldwide, in four months – more than World War I had killed in four years.

Jim continued, “And part of the problem was that people took a while to take it seriously. Something like Ebola is dramatic, and scary, and people respond to it right away, from individuals avoiding the sick patient to public health officials taking prompt action. But just flu? People react more slowly, and by the time you know it’s bad, you can have a lot of spread.

“Remember the swine flu epidemic, as they called it, in 2011?” Jim went on. “CDC estimated somewhere between 65 million and 82 million infected in the United States alone. Just that variation in their estimate tells you a lot about how well anyone knew how and where it spread. Obviously all our containment strategies failed! But it was a strain that didn’t kill people it infected, so no big deal, right? Well, actually, no. We should be taking it as a warning. If that flu had had about 7 percent lethality, like the 1918 strain, we’d have had about 5 million dead in the U.S. alone. You couldn’t do that with one H-bomb!”

“OK,” Jane nodded, “Now you’re starting to get me worried.”

“You ain’t heard nothin’ yet,” Jim continued grimly. “What if it had 50 percent lethality, like that Asian bird flu we were hearing about around the same time? Fortunately, that one wasn’t very infectious. Human-to-human spread almost never happened. But there were a couple of bright fellows who figured out how to modify it to make it highly infectious and sent their results to a major medical journal. Thank heaven one of the editors recognized why we don’t want that published and got them to modify the article! How’s that for a close call?”

“Sounds like a good plot for a scary sci-fi movie,” Ann, who had just joined the conversation, suggested.

“I’m thinking of writing it,” Jim smiled. “It could also be a good scenario for a wargame, but I’m getting frustrated trying to get the right people to host that game. I’ve been turned down already by a couple of organizations, Defense Department-connected of course, because those people just can’t see how this scenario would have anything to do with Defense operations and resources! Can you believe that? Just think about what happens when people from 250 countries are exposed, there aren’t nearly enough medical facilities locally to treat them, the U.S. political candidates are screaming not to let them come back until they’re disease-free, and of course half the countries in the world are blaming each other. And that’s just for a natural outbreak. What a great opportunity for a terrorist group! But the biowarfare experts I’ve talked to are still stuck thinking about people spreading diseases they consider much more damaging, like smallpox or anthrax, in a way that doesn’t involve sacrificing the people who carry the disease. Didn’t we learn from 9/11 that some of our adversaries don’t mind having a few of them get killed carrying out an attack?”

“Amazing,” Fred agreed, shaking his head in wonderment. “I hope you find a receptive audience soon.”

“I’m not optimistic,” Jim said. “I mentioned this a few weeks ago to someone who had been one of the top security planners in the last administration. She told me, ‘Oh, yes, we developed a pandemic response plan, led by the CDC, that addresses this sort of threat very well. Take a look at that.’ So I did, and the first thing I noticed was that the most recent version of this plan that I could find was dated 2005. We already know how well that plan worked in 2011, right? So ....”

“Better get to work on that screenplay,” Jane laughed.

“Yeah,” Jim shrugged, “and I think the first thing in it will be one of my favorite quotes, from David Ben-Gurion in his last ‘seminar’ with his senior military commanders: ‘The greatest danger to our security is inertia in the thinking of those responsible for security.’ Nailed it, didn’t he?”

Doug Samuelson is president and chief scientist of InfoLogix, Inc., in Annandale, Va. For more information, see “Can OR/MS Detect ‘The Coming Plague’?OR/MS Today, June 2008, which cites several other sources.