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30 October 2007

Epidemiological intelligence reconsidered

Some time ago, persistent virtual worlds made news for an unusual incident in which a plague spread widely through a massively multi-player fantasy game in an unanticipated fashion, due to the complexity of the system’s design. There was a great deal of speculation as the ramification of this event – some of it mirroring the longstanding discussions around self-replicating “gray goo” and other nanotechnological questions, some of it quite unique in its own right. The event even spawned serious scientific papers, and responses by other researchers.

The question of the potential utility of virtual worlds for examining epidemiological effects in simulation remains a fascinating area of study. It is a natural extension of other research attempting to track in a similar fashion the effects of viral ideas – memes – within simulated virtual populations for information operations / psychological operations studies. This is the sort of analysis which may dramatically alter the manner in which medical intelligence professionals approach their craft in the future. The watch desks of tomorrow, rather than being tied to a series of open source intelligence portals and medical information database feeds, might well also be linked to a shared situational awareness simulation, with the ability to rapidly generate scenario projections based on new reporting or analytical inference. Certainly, there has been enough cross-boundary interest in the problem that we expect to see surprising innovation in the near future. It is certainly long overdue given the need, especially in the face of recent exercises attempting to examine the impact of pandemic scenarios which were certainly less than robustly designed and executed.

In its own way, this is by no means a new problem. Among the most interesting books we ever had the pleasure to peruse on related subjects was Plagues, Poisons And Potions: Plague Spreading Conspiracies in the Western Alps c.1530-1640. We discovered this work once upon a time buried in the back shelves of the bookstore of the British Museum, and discovered it had a striking relevance for those interested in non-state actors’ motivations in biological terrorism / biological warfare incidents. The book is based largely on primary source records from Swiss city governments throughout the Savoy which were suffering through major disease outbreaks. A recurring series of cases are documented in which individuals deliberately attempted to spread disease to uninfected populations – motivated by cult conspiracy, simple hatred, and criminal profit. Given the evidence of other recent cases involving deliberate biological infection, it appears human nature remains little changed in nearly five hundred years.

We also note in a related vein the Swedes’ take on the potential dual use implications of some medical intelligence programs. While we differ with their analysis in that we are confident in the benign nature of US and allied programs, we would definitely see reason for concern in investments in such activities by some states (or their non-governmental organization counterparts) with proliferation interests.

Epidemiological intelligence remains a fascinating discipline in which the contributions of a number of different professions converge in a manner that is very rare in the community. There remains much ground for formal study to advance both the analytic tradecraft and the literature of the discipline, and perhaps to inspire similar interdisciplinary approaches in other areas of the profession.

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