Friday, May 15, 2015

From the Archive: "The Black Death"

(Originally published on September 3, 2011)

The ultimate goal of many survivalists and preppers is to prepare for an "apocalypse"--or The Apocalypse. And there is no shortage of information on what to do in the event of a natural disaster, storing food and water, gardening, self-defense, etc. One of the main variables, however, is how people will react in the face of a truly cataclysmic, TEOTWAWKI disaster. I spent some time a few years ago trying to figure this out, reading up on Katrina and its aftermath, researching what the government would do in the event of wide-spread social unrest, and trying to figure out what type of disaster would lead to a large scale loss of the rule of law. In doing so, I came across two excellent books on the Black Plague: The Great Mortality, by John Kelly, and Wendy Orent's Plague: The Mysterious Past and Terrifying Future of the World's Most Dangerous Disease. Kelly's book focuses just on the Black Plague of the 14th Century, and is more of a social history of the outbreak. Orent's book takes a broader perspective, tracing a history of plague outbreaks from Justinian's plague, through the Black Plague and later plague outbreaks in Europe, through some of the last large outbreaks in the 20th Century in India, China, and Vietnam, and finally to research by the Soviets, and later the Russians, to weaponize plague.

There are certain points to note. First, the Black Plague was caused by a bacterium called Yersinia pestis ("y. pestis"). The initial outbreak was in the central steppes of Asia (probably Mongolia), and spread east into China, south into India, and westward through the Middle-East and Asia to Europe.

Although we, in the West, tend to focus on its impact in Europe, it was as much or more devastating in China and the Middle-East. Kelly writes:
How many people perished in the Black Death is unknown; for Europe, the most widely accepted mortality figure is 33 percent. In raw numbers that means that between 1347, when the plague arrive in Sicily, and 1352, when it appeared in the plains in front of Moscow, the continent lost twenty-five million of its seventy-five million inhabitants. But in parts of urban Italy, eastern England, and rural France, the loss of human life was far greater, ranging from 40 to 60 percent. ....
 In the Islamic Middle East and North Africa, mortality rates also were in the one-third range. To the Muslim historian Ibn Kaldun, it seemed "as if the voice of existence in the world had called out for oblivion. In Chine the presence of chronic war makes it difficult to assess plague mortalities, but between 1200 and 1393 the population of the country fell 50 percent, from about 123 million to 65 million. Today a demographic disaster on the scale of the Black Death would claim 1.9 billion lives. (Kelly pp. 11-12).
(Horrible as these numbers sound, it should be remembered that Roman Europe, after the fall of the Western Empire, lost between one-half and two-thirds of its population).

Second, both books (although Orent to a greater extent than Kelly) note the different theories as to plague strains between Russian and Western researches. Basically, Western scientists, whose exposure to plague foci is limited, consider y. pestis to be but a single strain, transmitted by the fleas of rats and other rodents. This appears to be correct as to modern outbreaks of plague, and it is notable that plague in the United States is for the most part limited to prairie dog colonies. The problem is that contemporary accounts from the 14th Century do not mention large die offs of rats; the plague spread much too rapidly to be transmitted via rodents and fleas, but seemed to be transmitted directly from person to person; and the symptoms were very different. In particular, plague chroniclers noted that in addition to "bubos" (swollen lumps), plague victims would display dark splotches (likely hemorrhagic bruising), a foul oder emanating from their breath, and what appeared to be neurological problems. Western scientists offer no real explanation as to the differences.

The Russians, however, believe that there are different strains of plague, with widely differing mortality rates and vectors of transmission. Relevant here, they believe that the strain of plague from the marmot is the source of the Black Plague. The differences between the strains is that the marmot strain lodges in and attacks the respiratory system, and therefore readily changes into pneumonic plague. This seems to be born out by a recent study that sequenced the DNA of the plague recovered from corpses of plague victims. This study confirms that the modern strain of plague is, indeed, genetically different from the strain that caused the Black Plague. Says the article:
"The Black Death was caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis — the one responsible for current plague outbreaks. This settles the controversy surrounding the causative agent. Although we cannot rule out, at this stage, that there was another co-circulating strain," said study author Hendrik Poinar, a biological anthropologist at McMaster University in Ontario.

However, the genetic sequence of the bacteria in the London bodies differed from the sequences of modern versions of Y. pestis, suggesting that the strain responsible for the Black Death is likely extinct, the researchers said.
(More on this study here and here). It's possible that the particular strain is extinct--and we could hope so--but just is possible is that the strain they tested from the cadavers of the buried plague victims is simply different from the strain that the researches used for a comparison--likely the rat strain.

Certainly the Soviets and Russians believed that the marmot strain was different, and deadlier, than the rat strain found in the United States. Orent details their efforts to weaponize plague.  She notes the following:

(a) In 1986, a Soviet scientist, Sergei Popov, worked on “recombinant plague” that included DNA to produce peptids. The idea was that when a victim was treated for plague and given antibiotics, the antibiotics would break down the cell walls and release artificial peptides which would subsequently cause paralysis, high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, changes in behavior, perception of pain, or other bizarre effects. Two days to two weeks later, the recovered patient would be struck with a heart attack, stroke, or fatal paralysis. Orent claims that this was successfully tested on animals.

 (b) In 1987, another Soviet scientist, Dergei Netesov, Deputy Director of Vector Labs., went to Obolensk to develop “chimera” plague with Venezuelan equine encephalomyelitis (VEE) in plague bacteria. Similar to the 1986 research, the idea was that when the victim developed plague and was treated with antibiotics, the cell walls of the plague bacteria would break down releasing the VEE virus, producing encephalitis and death within 10 days.

(c) In 1992, another researcher, K.I. Volkovoi integrated genetic coding for diphtheria directly into plague plasmids, resulting in the plague bacterium being able to overcome immunity to live plague vaccine, increased its virulence (so it could be aerosolized), and was antibiotic resistant.

(d) Orsted reports that the Russians continue bioweapon research at various locations, including Kirov, Pokrov, Sergiyev Posad, and Ekaterinburg (fka Sverdlovsk).
Al-Qaeda apparently also attempted to weaponize plague, which resulted in a deadly outbreak. (Here and here; possible confirmation here and here).

 One of the more interesting aspects in Kelly's book is that, notwithstanding the tremendous death, there was apparently no wide-spread social unrest. (The Plague did cause social upheaval--the shortage of labor following the Plague basically spelled the doom of the feudal system, as peasants and workers found the opportunity to move to better paying jobs and positions). Probate courts, while working overtime, continued to work; cities were not abandoned (although some rural villages were literally depopulated); although there were riots directed against Jews (always the scapegoats), there apparently was little else in way of social agitation.

 I don't know if it would be the same today. People viewed the Black Death as a judgment from God; certainly there was no expectation that government "do something." Hence, there was no disappointment or anger when government couldn't do anything, except gather the bodies and bury the dead. Today, whether you agree with having an overweening government or not, people expect--even insist--that it solve our problems. People might be  upset if they faced death from a plague, but the government was unable to do anything about it.

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