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?