Future Tense

The Author of World War Z Is Worried About Germ Warfare

Max Brooks on writing a graphic novel about the threat of bioterrorism.

Book covers of Germ Warfare and World War Z.
Photo illustration by Slate.

What if Zika had been cooked up in a lab? In 2016, I asked that question in an op-ed for the New York Daily News. At the time, Zika was spreading across the country, and Congress seemed to be treating it like the common cold. I couldn’t believe the laziness, the incompetence. Here was a government that would spend trillions on national security but wouldn’t lift a finger for public health. But what if national security depended on public health? That had been the case less than two decades ago, when envelopes full of anthrax had been mailed to multiple targets across America, including the building where I worked. As a brand-new writer for Saturday Night Live, I came into work one day to find all of 30 Rock in a panic. And we were the lucky ones. The so-called Amerithrax attacks had sickened 17 people and killed five. All from a disease that was completely treatable.

But what about the next time? What if the next attack comes not from bacteria like anthrax but from a virus like the 1918 influenza? What if someone digs up a frozen, infected corpse or, like Amerithrax, smuggles the disease out of a lab? If we were caught by surprise by a natural outbreak like Zika—which is waning now but was devastating for those affected—how could we even hope to survive an artificial plague?

I’d already discussed this scenario in my 2006 novel World War Z. Every aspect of this fictional zombie story was based in real-world facts that suggest humanity could easily bungle a response to a disease racing across our planet. I was inspired in part by the discovery and attempted Chinese cover-up of the SARS outbreak in 2002–04.

My Zika op-ed got the attention of folks who were already working on an answer. The Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense is a bipartisan group of former government officials—including former DHS Secretary Tom Ridge, former FBI chief of staff Ken Wainstein, former Sen. Joe Lieberman, and, from 2014–18, former HHS Secretary and current Rep. Donna Shalala—devoted to protecting us from the nightmare scenario of a bio attack. And while the panel is affiliated with the Hudson Institute, it carries no political agenda other than uniting against a common threat. That’s the good news. The bad news is … well … there’s a lot of bad news.

The members invited me to a formal hearing in Washington, where two terrifying facts turned my stomach.

The first is that my paranoid notions of corpse diggers and lab smugglers are pathetically outdated compared with what’s coming at us now. The age of the homegrown bioterrorist is right around the corner, a time where anyone with a little cash and access to the internet will be able to cook up designer plagues. Lab equipment that used to cost millions of dollars can now be purchased on the cheap from eBay. Knowledge that used to require a Ph.D. and top-security clearance is available on the dark web or, in many cases, in open-source publications for the whole world to view. Even worse, breakthroughs in genetic manipulation will allow tomorrow’s lone wolf to harvest a seemingly harmless bug anywhere in nature and tweak it just enough to wipe us out.

If that first fact wasn’t bad enough, the second is even worse. We, the public, you and I, are the ones letting it happen. Because we’ve conquered so many diseases, and therefore don’t have to worry about the specters that killed and crippled our grandparents, we’re starting to question the science that saved us. Thanks to the anti-vaxxer movement, I’m writing this piece from a city (Los Angeles) that in late April quarantined hundreds of people exposed to a disease that was officially eliminated in the United States. And that’s just measles. Just wait till polio makes a comeback! And what if that polio, or an entirely new disease, doesn’t come from nature? In February, a Coast Guard lieutenant named Christopher Paul Hasson was arrested with a cache of firearms and ammo. In an email, he had allegedly sought to “acquire the needed/ Spanish flu, botulism, anthrax.” Pulling that off right now might have been difficult, to say the least. But if he had, in an age of anti-vaxxers and alternative facts, he might have killed more people than all our past enemies put together.

The bioterrorist’s greatest ally is our own ignorance, and, as I watched the Blue Ribbon Study Panel’s hearing, I saw that the member had no plan to combat it. There were plenty of doctors, counterterror experts, even a logistician who spoke about the need for stockpiling medical supplies. But nobody had even considered how they were going to educate the public. Public misunderstanding is dangerous. Just look at Congo, where an Ebola outbreak is ongoing. Health workers and clinics have been attacked. A study published in the Lancet in late March found that one-quarter of “respondents believ[ed] that the Ebola outbreak was not real. Low institutional trust and belief in misinformation were associated with a decreased likelihood of adopting preventive behaviors, including acceptance of Ebola vaccines … and seeking formal health care.”

Science and technology are useless without us, the citizens, doing our part. We need to know what we’re up against and what we can do to protect ourselves.

This is why we came up with the idea of Germ Warfare: A Very Graphic History—a free graphic novel that we have just published. Comic books are universal, they’re easily accessible, and when it comes to education, they are nothing new. The U.S. Army has used them to train new recruits. UNICEF, in partner with the U.S. government, used them to warn Bosnian children about the dangers of landmines. Recently, the Ugandan Ministry of Health published a graphic novel to help its citizens tell medical science apart from folk remedies. As a parent, I used comics to introduce my son to world history, and as someone who struggles with dyslexia, I depend on them for an introduction to new subjects.

As a writer, the challenge was distilling volumes of research down to the bare essentials. I had to start at the beginning, from the earliest days of human evolution, when we had absolutely no idea that microbes even existed. Even when we did, when men like Antonie Leeuwenhoek invented the microscope in the 17th century, it took another couple of centuries to realize that those tiny “animalcules” caused sickness. It wasn’t easy reading about how humans have used germs to kill their fellow humans. From Bronze Age arrows infected with festering manure to bubonic bodies catapulted over city walls, to smallpox-soaked blankets given as a gift to Native Americans. Even now, it’s hard to picture Japanese planes dropping bombs packed with plague fleas on China, or the covered-up anthrax outbreak in the Soviet town of Sverdlovsk in 1979, or the horrific pathogens that the U.S. and numerous other nations have stockpiled (particularly during the Cold War), and how some of those nations still refuse to let them go.

And yet the silver lining during this process was the exact reason I started it in the first place. It’s so easy to protect ourselves. We just have to keep doing what we’re doing. Keep vaccinating our kids. Keep believing in science. Keep from backsliding into ignorance and division. Hopefully Germ Warfare: A Graphic History will remind everyone who reads it that, just like in a zombie outbreak, what keeps us healthy also keeps us safe.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.