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Syria’s world war

How Britain and the US are being dragged into the defining conflict of our times.

Why does Bashar al-Assad keep doing it? On the evening of 7 April a chemical weapons attack hit Douma city, the largest and most symbolic area still controlled by rebels in eastern Ghouta – a region the size of Manchester. This pocket of resistance, which is located on the eastern outskirts of Damascus, has largely been retaken by Syrian regime forces in recent weeks, although rebels in some places have still refused to surrender. The latest attack killed at least 42 people and injured more than 500, according to reports from the Syrian American Medical Society, which runs medical facilities across the country. It estimates that most of the victims were women and children.

Numerous videos have captured the horrific aftermath of the attack, several of which show young children fighting for breath, suffocating and frothing at the mouth. Images like this have become far too common in the conflict. Apologists for Assad have claimed that jihadists rather than the regime itself might be responsible for the horrendous attack. The Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said no evidence had been found of a chemical attack in Douma. After all, what does the regime have to gain from such an attack when Assad is winning the war that has raged on for seven years?

Pro-government forces, backed by Russia and Iran, have driven rebels from eastern Ghouta and have greater control over the rest of the country than at any other point since the Syrian crisis began in March 2011. Just when the tyrannical triumvirate of Assad-Putin-Khamenei has momentum and Donald Trump announces he wants American forces to leave Syria altogether, this attack happens. Why would the regime do it?

Should we need any more evidence, the Assad regime does not operate within the constraints of conventional political actions, as understood in the West. It is worth remembering that the sarin gas attack of 2013 in Ghouta brought no decisive military benefit for Assad and risked forcing the Obama administration to intervene in accordance with the so-called red line it had drawn against the use of chemical weapons.

In any event, the use of chemical weapons has become far more widespread than is often recognised. Since they were first deployed in the war in December 2012, the Syrian Network for Human Rights has documented 213 subsequent uses. That figure is broadly endorsed by the Syrian American Medical Society and the White Helmets, an aid agency working as first responders in rebel-held territories. Taken as an average, that is approximately three such attacks a month.

The devil is in the detail. There are, of course, a range of different chemical weapons available to the regime. The attacks that attract most attention are those with a significant death toll, or in which women and children are the main victims. The regime typically deploys chlorine through barrel bombs or rockets, which impact the immediate area in which a device falls but are generally not as lethal as other types of chemical weapons. The death toll might not be as high as a result. But the utility of chlorine lies in the psychological fear it spreads on the ground. Greater lethality typically arises from sarin attacks, of which there have been a number in eastern Ghouta.


In other words, the regime is deploying these weapons consistently, deliberately, and with a conscious consideration of their qualitative effects. Assad has not simply eroded what academics call “the chemical weapons taboo”; he has shattered it. And his confidence has returned, especially compared to the high watermark of the war in 2014-15, when his authority had crumbled. Kurds dominated the north-east of Syria, while broader parts of the east had fallen to Islamic State. Meanwhile, an alphabet soup of various militias – jihadist and otherwise – rampaged across northern and southern parts of the country. Assad’s meaningful control only really extended across a small sliver of land from Damascus in the south through to his coastal redoubt of Latakia.

The intervention of proxy Shia militias from Hezbollah and Iran helped stop the rot, but it was the Russians who decisively tipped the balance in the regime’s favour. Just consider the carefully choreographed absurdity of Assad’s recent visit to newly reclaimed parts of eastern Ghouta for Syrian state television. He appears relaxed, wearing an open collared shirt, and drives a modest Honda Civic to the frontlines to congratulate his men. He speaks to the camera throughout, one hand on the wheel; the other pirouetting through the air, with blithe indifference to the catastrophic human suffering involved in his campaign to retake the area.

For a leader who will have been anxious about meeting a similar fate to Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Assad cannot but help treat himself to an early victory lap. More importantly, he is no longer thinking just about winning the war, but about setting the terms for a peace in which his regime will aim to drive its advantage home for the coming decades.

When Assad arrived in Ghouta, his loyalist apparatchiks pumped their rifles into the air, triumphantly chanting “with our souls, with our blood, we will sacrifice ourselves for you”. Behind them lay a barren wasteland of destruction, in a province where an estimated two million people once lived.

What the regime desperately wants Syrians to understand is the continued and future cost of their disobedience. The message is clear: defy Assad, and this is what will become of your homes and neighbourhoods.

These are tried and tested methods for Syria’s Ba’athists who have been obsessed with their own survival since Bashar al-Assad’s farther, Hafez, led a coup d’état in 1970, becoming president the following year. Opposition to his regime intensified after Syrian forces invaded Lebanon in 1976, giving rise to a low-level insurgency led by the Muslim Brotherhood. Pockets of unrest developed sporadically, in areas such as Jisr al-Shughour (located in the western part of Idlib province, close to the border with Turkey, which is rebel-held today), and in districts of Aleppo such as al-Masharqah and Bustan al-Qasr.

These events culminated in a stand-off in the city of Hama in February 1982, resulting in a month-long siege during which an estimated 25,000 people were killed (estimates on the exact death toll vary between 4,000 and 40,000, although 25,000 appears most accurate based on academic accounts of the massacre).

For a regime that has traded in carefully calculated and strategically-minded repression since its inception, the lessons of the Hama massacre have not been forgotten. The crackdown delivered almost immediate results. By the middle of 1982, the opposition was battered and beaten.

Bashar al-Assad tried similar tactics during the early phases of the Syrian uprising, but the approach backfired. When his forces struggled to contain protests across the country, they concentrated their rage on Baba Amr, a neighbourhood in Homs widely regarded as the epicentre of the revolution. The area was besieged and then shelled without remorse. Among the many victims were Marie Colvin, the celebrated Sunday Times reporter, and Rémi Ochlik, a French photojournalist, who both died in February 2012. Hours before her death, Colvin had spoken to CNN about the regime’s indiscriminate violence. “[There] are 28,000 civilians, men, women and children, hiding, being shelled, defenceless,” she said. “The Syrian Army is simply shelling a city of cold, starving civilians.”

In 2012 Assad could not replicate the success of his father, but he has since revived those methods in more fortuitous circumstances. The changed realities of the Syrian war today allow the regime to deploy brutal force with the hope of shunting people back into obsequiousness. Chemical weapons are a deliberate part of that calculus.

Syrian children look out of the broken window of a bus carrying civilians from war-ravaged eastern Ghouta on 10 April. Credit: Getty

So how can we expect the West to respond? At one level, President Trump’s apparent willingness to take action in the wake of the latest atrocity – he tweeted that there would be a “big price” to pay and has vowed a quick and “forceful” response – is intended to distinguish him, once again, from his predecessor. The disintegration of Syria since Barack Obama’s failure to enforce his own so-called red line leaves a stain on his administration. A self-described tragic realist, Obama, who opposed the Iraq War, was deeply reluctant to be drawn into Syria. As a consequence, he has a poorer record on the defining humanitarian crisis of our times than his boorish successor. In 2012, when the Syrian regime first used chemical weapons, there were some who lauded Obama for avoiding the rush to war and instead negotiating a deal with the Russians, by which these stockpiles were supposed to have been removed from the country. How hollow that argument looks now.  

In the case of Trump, however, any credit he gets for apparently having a lower threshold for tolerating Assad’s most egregious crimes must be considerably hedged. On 7 April last year the Trump administration struck the Shayrat Airbase in Syria – the site from which a sarin weapons attack had been launched against the residents of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province – with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles. Trump claimed a feeling of revulsion at the targeting of women and children. He has similarly condemned the latest outrage in Douma as “mindless” and “sick”.

But the president is also guilty of incoherence and inconsistency, with more than a dash of cynicism in his own response. When the Obama administration was agonising over whether to intervene militarily against the Assad regime in 2013, Trump then took to Twitter and urged him not to: “There is no upside and tremendous downside,” he said, “Save your ‘powder’ for another (and more important) day!”

Minds can change, of course, and perhaps Trump has decided that the time to reach for American powder has arrived once again. Yet the attention that he has given the Syrian war has been no more than fleeting and episodic, largely in tow to the news cycle. While one may reasonably expect an attention deficit from this president, the failure to follow up on his own red lines with a sustained diplomatic strategy has not made for a successful deterrent. More broadly, the continued failure to fill key posts in the state department, where morale has never been lower, has left a vacuum in American diplomacy. After a single display of military power in April last year, the broader Syrian war slipped off the agenda as attention moved back to the campaign against Islamic State, which appeals much more to Trump’s base instincts. 

In recent weeks, the Trump administration had made bold, triumphalist, statements to the effect that the threat from Islamic State was all but eradicated. Just days before the last chemical attack, there was a further announcement that the administration was considering extracting itself from Syria altogether. Most likely, Trump’s decision to order an American withdrawal represented several calculations operating together. First, with mid-term elections looming, he is keen to demonstrate a foreign policy success and the fulfilment of a campaign promise to destroy Islamic State. By declaring “mission accomplished” he meets this need. Second, more broadly, Trump seems to have revived his previous hostility to what some describe as the “globalist” faction within the national security establishment. The ousting of Rex Tillerson as secretary of state and HR McMaster as national security adviser is said to reflect the president’s mounting frustration that he was being thwarted by underlings. Defence secretary James Mattis is the last of the so-called adults in the room.


Future historians might see this as the moment that something resembling a Trump doctrine – or at least a set of identifiable instincts – began to take shape, however half-formed. Allergic as he is to putting troops on the ground – or pursuing anything resembling a conventional humanitarian intervention – Trump also has an instinctive aversion to anything that seems to throw dust in the eyes of America. The threshold for significant troop deployments (as favoured by McMaster in Afghanistan and Syria, for example) is extremely high. But there is an alternative tariff in operation, from North Korea to the Middle East.

The reasoning goes something like this: the mistakes of Bush and Obama are to be avoided; but there remains a willingness to assert American muscle and threaten punitive action. This mechanism is not enacted in a traditional defence of the international rules-based order but emanates from a more primal reflex drawing on a sense of prestige and power. Thus, Trump’s tweets veer from regret that his conciliation with Russia has been frustrated - in his eyes by the Russia investigation - to the bombastic warning that missiles are on their way to Syria. “Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and 'smart'!" 

This is where the blunt wedge that is John Bolton, McMaster’s replacement as national security adviser, comes in. It was Bolton’s appearances on Fox News, defending the president’s agenda rather than trying to soften its edges, that are said to have attracted Trump to this long-time Republican hawk. If Bolton is distinguished by one thing, it is his conviction that the US has been too cautious in deploying force to uphold American interests and security.


The conundrum that will have faced Bolton on his first day in office is one for which, in his own estimation, he is perfectly suited. Like the president, he will feel compelled to show American strength. Herein lies the danger of a half-baked policy. Trump’s last foray into this conflict, the cruise missile strikes against Syrian targets in April 2017, did not achieve its desired effect. If another largely symbolic gesture is followed by a further degradation of international chemical weapons control, it will continue a steady diminution of American power that can be traced back to at least 2003. As for those crowing that the world’s policeman had become a cowboy, too unilateral in its actions, the consequences of an anarchic international order going largely unchecked are there for all to see.

At the time of the April 2017 strike, the administration was eager to minimise risk to citizens of other countries – particularly Russian forces – who were known to be operating in the area. Almost exactly a year later, as it debates the details of its likely response, some of the dilemmas will be the same. There is the question of whether to focus simply on chemical weapons facilities in similarly limited strikes or whether a more substantive punitive approach is adopted to damage the Syrian regime while potentially raising the prospect of further reprisals.

And the geopolitical context is considerably altered since last year. This might change the calculations of the US administration and those – particularly France and Britain – who have signalled their willingness to act in concert. First, Islamic State is much diminished. The old Hobson’s choice – always a false one, successfully propagated by Assad – that clipping the Syrian regime’s wings meant helping the caliphate – no longer carries the same weight. Second, the notion that Russia could be a responsible partner – as Obama had hoped in 2013 – has been severely undermined.

Indeed, what was different about Trump’s initial response to the most recent chemical attack in Douma was his willingness to extend his opprobrium to Russia and President Putin, as well as Iran. The desire to push back against or thwart the expansion of Iranian influence across the Middle East has been one of the administration’s most consistent policies; a sentiment that will be further burnished by Bolton’s arrival in the White House.


There is a growing feeling among leading politicians in the West that, after a string of tactical victories, Putin overstepped the mark in the Skripal affair in Salisbury. Having been met with an unexpectedly robust response from Britain, the US and a number of European states, there is reason to think that he has been put on the back foot. It may well be that the Trump administration – encouraged by a proactive President Macron and the British government – sees a moment to drive this advantage home. Momentarily, at least, the proliferation and increased use of chemical weapons, from Salisbury to Syria, has provided the Western alliance with a much-needed sense of common purpose.

Once again, Syria has proven to be the problem that cannot be ignored, however much the West has tried. The ugly status quo engineered at great human cost by the Syrian regime – with the support of Russia and Iran – has been disturbed. Assad has brazenly continued to deploy chemical weapons on a regular basis with no great fear of any serious costs. For many years, the West has pursued diplomacy neutered by the absence of any willingness to deploy force; today, the danger is of a reflexive use of arms without any considered diplomatic strategy. These whimsical and fleeting fits of moral panic directed towards the defining crisis of our generation do little to defuse a febrile international climate. 

John Bew and Shiraz Maher are academics in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, and New Statesman contributing writers

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s world war

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A century ago, the Spanish flu killed 100 million people. Is a new pandemic on the way?

Our leaders need to act like the outbreak has already started – because for all we know it may have.

It is hard not to have a sneaking envy of the virus. As complex creatures, we are distracted by myriad demands on our attention; we will never know the dead-eyed focus of the viral world. It is akin to the psychopath: a cold, purposeful drive to achieve its own agenda, coupled with the skills and resourcefulness to succeed. In a world threatened by nuclear war and devastating climate change, it may actually be the virus that we should fear most.

This is the centenary year of the Spanish flu outbreak, when a virus killed between 50 and 100 million people in a matter of months. The devastation was worldwide; it is only known as Spanish flu because Spain, neutral in the ongoing hostilities of World War One, was the only country without press restrictions. Across Europe, people assumed their own outbreaks originated in the only place reporting on the disaster.

A number of authors have lined up with a kind of grim celebration of influenza’s annus mirabilis. As well as chronicling the fatal reach of this organism, they all offer a warning about a follow-up pandemic that is overdue – and for which, it seems, we are largely unprepared. “Somewhere out there a dangerous virus is boiling up in the bloodstream of a bird, bat, monkey, or pig, preparing to jump to a human being,” says Jonathan Quick in The End of Epidemics. “It has the potential to wipe out millions of us, including my family and yours, over a matter of weeks or months.”

If that seems a little shlocky, you should know that Quick is no quack. He is a former director at the WHO, the current chair of the Global Health Council and a faculty member at Harvard Medical School. The book’s blurb includes endorsements from the director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the president of Médicins Sans Frontières, and the president of the Rockefeller Foundation.

The numbers Quick serves up are stupefying. Bill Gates, for instance, has said it is more likely than not that he will live to see a viral outbreak kill over 10 million people in a year. In Gates’s nightmare scenario, outlined by computer simulations created with disease-modelling experts, 33 million people die within 200 days of the first human infection. The potential for exponential spread means a death toll of 300 million is possible in the first year. “We would be in a world where scrappy, ravaged survivors struggle for life in a zombie-movie wasteland,” Quick tells us in his informed, cogent and – honestly – frightening book.

If you can’t imagine what that is like, you could try asking the Yupik people of Alaska, who were devastated by the 1918 Spanish flu. You might not get an answer, however, because they remain traumatised, and have made a pact not to speak about the pandemic that shattered their ancient culture.  (A pandemic is a disease that spreads across continents; an epidemic is usually contained within a country or continent.)They aren’t the only long-term sufferers. The Vanuatu archipelago suffered 90 per cent mortality and 20 of its local languages went extinct. Those in the womb in 1918 were also affected. A baby born in 1919 “was less likely to graduate and earn a reasonable wage, and more likely to go to prison, claim disability benefit, and suffer from heart disease,” reports Laura Spinney in Pale Rider.

Such arresting snippets of the flu’s legacy abound in Spinney’s thoughtful, coherent take on the 1918 outbreak. The book’s subtitle suggests that the Spanish flu changed the world, and Spinney certainly backs this up. Societies broke down and had to be rebuilt; recovering populations were reinvigorated by the simple calculus of Darwin’s “survival of the fittest”; public health provisions were first imagined and then brought into reality; artists and writers responded to a new global mood by establishing new movements.

Not every outcome could be spun as a positive. Scientists, for instance, were humiliated by their inability to halt the flu’s progress, creating an opportunity for quack medicines to arise and establish themselves. Some of our greatest writers lived through the trauma, but could never bring themselves to discuss it in their stories. Virginia Woolf noted that it was “strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature”.

Spinney’s background as a science writer shines through: her handling of the workings of the flu is detailed and deft. She brings both the influenza A virus (the only type responsible for pandemics) and the human immune system to life, laying out the biochemical processes that kill and cure with clarity and care. She exposes the chilling roots of often-used but seldom-explained viral names such as “H1N1” (Spanish flu) or “H5N1” (bird flu). H is for haemagglutinin, the lollipop-shaped appendage that allows a virus to break into a cell and take over the means of production. N is for neuraminidase, the “glass-cutter” structure that allows replicated viruses to break out again and unleash hell upon the host. So far, we know of 18 H’s and 11 N’s and they all have ever-evolving sub-types that make a long-lasting general vaccine against the flu an elusive dream: “Every flu pandemic of the 20th century was triggered by the emergence of a new H in influenza A,” says Spinney.

For all her technical expertise, Spinney has a light touch and a keen eye for the comic. She relates how a ferret sneezing in the face of a British researcher in 1933 exposed influenza’s ability to travel between biological species, for instance. She also excels with the bigger picture, detailing the century of scientific detective work that has allowed us to piece together the genetic elements of the 1918 virus and gain insights into its creation. It seems to have jumped to humans on a farm in Kansas, via domestic and wild birds indigenous to North America. There may also have been some ingredients from pigs, too, but that’s not settled.

Spinney’s afterword questions whether our collective memory for such events ever reflects the truth of the moment. “When the story of the Spanish flu was told, it was told by those who got off most lightly: the white and well off,” she tells us. “With very few exceptions, the ones who bore the brunt of it, those living in ghettoes or at the rim, have yet to tell their tale. Some, such as the minorities whose languages died with them, never will.”

That said, Catharine Arnold has done a remarkable job of relating the tales of a diverse set of sufferers, crafting an arresting and intimate narrative of the 1918 pandemic. She pulls the accounts of hundreds of victims into a gripping tale that swoops down into the grisly detail, then soars up to give a broad view over the landscape of this calamitous moment in human history.

Arnold’s remembrances come from the unknown and from celebrities. A Margery Porter from south London emphasised that “we just couldn’t stand up. Your legs actually gave way, I can’t exaggerate that too much.” John Steinbeck described the experience of infection as almost spiritual. “I went down and down,” he said, “until the wingtips of angels brushed my eyes.”

The reality was, inevitably, less poetic. A local surgeon removed one of Steinbeck’s ribs so that he could gain access to the author’s infected lung. Most victims’ bodies turned blue-black as they died. Healthcare workers reported appalling scenes, with delirious patients suffering horrific nosebleeds. “Sometimes the blood would just shoot across the room,” a navy nurse recalled. If their lungs punctured, the patients’ bodies would fill with air. “You would feel somebody and he would be bubbles… When their lungs collapsed, air was trapped beneath their skin. As we rolled the dead in winding sheets, their bodies crackled – an awful crackling noise with sounded like Rice Krispies when you pour milk over them.”

The killer in 1918 was often not the flu virus itself but the “cytokine storm” of an immune system overreacting to the infection. Strong, fit young people, with their efficient immune systems, were thus particularly at risk, their bodies effectively shutting themselves down. Then there were the ravages of opportunistic bacteria that would lodge in the devastated tissue, causing pneumonia and other fatal complications. Arnold paints a grim but vivid picture of exhausted gravediggers and opportunistic funeral directors cannily upping their prices. The morgues were overflowing, and morticians worked day and night. In the end, mass graves were the only answer for the poverty-stricken workers attempting to bury their loved ones before they, too, succumbed.

No one was spared from grief or suffering at the hands of the “Spanish Lady”, as the flu came to be known. Louis Brownlow, the city commissioner for Washington DC, reported nursing his stricken wife while answering telephone calls from desperate citizens. One woman called to say that of the three girls she shared a room with, two had died, and the third was on her way out. Brownlow sent a police officer to the house. A few hours later, the sergeant reported back from the scene: “Four girls dead.”

Some of the other stories Arnold has unearthed are equally heartbreaking. A Brooklyn boy called Michael Wind wrote of the moment his mother died after less than a day of being ill. He and his five siblings were at her bedside, as was their father, “head in hands, sobbing bitterly”. The following morning, knowing that he was soon to die too, their father took the three youngest children to the orphanage.

Arnold writes beautifully, and starkly, of the tragedy that unfolded in the autumn months of 1918: “the Spanish Lady played out her death march, killing without compunction. She did not discriminate between statesmen, painters, soldiers, poets, writers or brides.” She chronicles the Lady’s path from the United States and Canada through Europe, Africa and Asia, culminating in New Zealand’s “Black November”. The book is utterly absorbing. But how do we respond to its horrors and tragedies? What are we to do with our collective memories of such visceral, world-shattering events? Learn from them – and fast, argues Jonathan Quick.

Unlike Arnold and Spinney, Quick is not content to be a chronicler or a bystander. He is, he says, both terrified at the looming disaster and furious at the lack of high-level reaction to its threat. He is determined to create a movement that will instigate change, mimicking the way activists forced change from governments paralysed by, and pharmaceutical companies profiteering from, the Aids pandemic. Quick has channelled his fury: The End of Epidemics is, at heart, a call to arms against influenza, Ebola, Zika and the many other threats before us.


So what are we to do? First, our leaders need to act like the outbreak has already started – because for all we know it may have. We must strengthen our public health systems, and create robust agencies and NGOs ready to monitor and deal with the threat. We must educate citizens and implement surveillance, prevention and response mechanisms, while fighting misinformation and scaremongering. Governments must step up (and fund) research.

We can’t develop a vaccine until the threat is manifest, but we can prepare technology for fast large-scale production. We can also invest in methods of early diagnoses and virus identification. Invest $1 per person per year for 20 years and the threat will be largely neutralised, Quick suggests. Finally – and most importantly – there is an urgent need to create grass-roots support for these measures: citizen groups and other organisations that will hold their leaders to account and prevent death on a scale that no one alive has ever experienced. Is this achievable? Traumatised readers of Quick’s book will be left hoping that it is.

For all the advances of the last century, there are many unknowns. Scientists don’t know, for instance, which microbe will bring the next pandemic, where it will come from, or whether it will be transmitted through the air, by touch, through body fluids or through a combination of routes.

While there is considerable attention focused on communities in West Africa, East Asia or South America as the most likely source of the next outbreak, it’s worth remembering that most scientists now believe the 1918 influenza outbreak began on a farm in Kansas. Quick suggests the
next pandemic might have a similar geographical origin, thanks to the industrialised livestock facilities beloved by American food giants.

Viruses naturally mutate and evolve rapidly, taking up stray bits of genetic material wherever they can be found. But it’s the various flu strains that live inside animals that bring sleepless nights to those in the know. They can exist inside a pig, bat or chicken without provoking symptoms, but prove devastating if (when) they make the jump to humans. As more and more humans live in close proximity to domesticated animals, encroach on the territories inhabited by wild animals, and grow their food on unprecedented scales, our chance of an uncontrollable epidemic increase.

The meat factories known as “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations” (CAFOs) are particularly problematic. They provide cheap meat, poultry, dairy and
eggs from animals kept in what Quick terms “concentration camp conditions”, simultaneously creating the perfect breeding ground for new and dangerous pathogens. Pigs, he points out, eat almost everything, so their guts are the perfect mixing bowls for a new and deadly influenza strain. “CAFOs were the birthplace of swine flu, and they could very likely be the birthplace of the next killer pandemic,” Quick warns.

There are other possibilities, though – bioterror, for instance. Bill Gates is among
those who have warned that terrorist groups are looking into the possibility of releasing the smallpox virus in a crowded market, or on a plane. Then there is the possibility of a scientist’s mistake. In 1978 a woman died after smallpox was released from a laboratory at the University of Birmingham, UK. In 2004 two Chinese researchers accidentally infected themselves with the SARS virus and spread it to seven other people, one of whom died. In 2014, a cardboard box full of forgotten vials of smallpox was found in a National Institutes of Health facility in Bethesda, Maryland. A year later, the US military accidentally shipped live anthrax spores to labs in the US and a military base in South Korea. It’s not impossible that human error could strike again – with catastrophic results.

Such possibilities lie behind our discomfort with what scientists have to do to further our understanding. Researchers in Rotterdam, for instance, wanted to know whether the deadly H5N1 bird flu could develop a capacity for airborne transmission like the common cold virus. Having failed to modify its genetics to achieve this, they began to pass an infection between ferrets, the animals whose response to the virus most mimics that of humans. Ten ferrets later, healthy animals were catching the virus from the cage next door. Knowing how easily H5N1 can become airborne is exactly the kind of discovery that will bolster our vigilance. It is, after all, many times more fatal than the H1N1 strain that caused the Spanish flu. At the same time, there was a huge – but understandable –
furore over whether the research should
be published, and thus be available to potential bioterrorists.

We might have to live with such dilemmas, because it is important to be ready to challenge the killer virus when it arrives. As we have seen with Aids and the common cold, developing vaccines takes time, and there is no guarantee of success, even with a concerted research effort.


Will we be ready? Quick suggests that our best chance lies in the world’s business leaders realising what’s at stake: economies would be devastated by the next pandemic. In 1918, Arnold points out, the British government was telling citizens it was their patriotic duty to “carry on” and make sure the wheels of industry kept turning. The result was a perfect environment for mass infection. Political leaders made similar mistakes across the Atlantic: on 12 October President Wilson led a gathering of 25,000 New Yorkers down the “Avenue of the Allies”. “That same week,” Arnold reports, “2,100 New Yorkers died of influenza.”

It’s worth noting that Spanish flu did not abate because we outsmarted it. The pandemic ended because the virus ran out of people it could infect. Of those who didn’t die, some survived through a chance natural immunity, and some were lucky enough to have maintained a physical separation from those carrying the invisible threat. The virus simply failed to kill the rest, enabling their bodies to develop the antibodies required to repel a further attack. A generation or two later, when the antibody-equipped immune systems were in the grave, and humans were immunologically vulnerable (and complacent) once again, H1N1 virus re-emerged, causing the 2009 swine flu outbreak.

As these books make clear, this is a history that could repeat all too easily in our time. Of the three, Pale Rider is perhaps the most satisfying. It has greater complexity and nuance than Arnold’s collection of harrowing tales, fascinating though they are. Spinney’s analysis is more circumspect and thus less paralysing than Quick’s masterful exposition of our precarious situation. But the truth is we need all these perspectives, and probably more, if we are to avoid sleepwalking into the next pandemic. Unlike our nemesis, humans lack focus – and it could be our undoing. 

Michael Brooks’s most recent book is “The Quantum Astrologer’s Handbook” (Scribe)

Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World
Laura Spinney
Vintage, 352pp, £25

Pandemic 1918: The Story of the Deadliest Influenza in History
Catharine Arnold
Michael O’Mara, 368pp, £20

The End of Epidemics
Jonathan D Quick with Bronwyn Fryer
Scribe, 288pp, £14.99

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s world war