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George Knapp: Preserving humankind (some of it)

George Knapp
George Knapp

The first time I read a fictional account of an apocalyptic threat emanating from the general vicinity of Southern Nevada, it was in Michael Crichton’s 1969 techno-thriller The Andromeda Strain. In the best-sellling book — and, later, the movie and miniseries — a group of scientists working in a secret underground facility close to Flatrock, a fictional burg 60 miles or so from Las Vegas, struggled to contain the spread of deadly virus from outer space.

The book was a hit long before most of the world had heard of a little place called Area 51 and its rumored subterranean labs and top-secret weapons programs. Since then, all sorts of diabolical schemes and Armageddon scenarios have unfolded in print, movies, TV shows and video games, which means we locals are more than familiar with having a bulls-eye on our backs because Satan or ETs or assorted madmen think we epitomize all that is wrong with the world.

It wasn’t until Independence Day that anyone thought of Nevada as a cradle of human salvation, the place where Earthlings might make their final stand. (Okay, Stephen King might have had a similar idea.) But what if someone came along with a real-life proposal, an audacious, step-by-step plan to not only prepare for a worst-case, planet-threatening scenario, but also to preserve the essence of humanity so that civilization could rebuild after the planetary shit hits the fan?

Las Vegas hotel developer turned space entrepreneur Robert Bigelow is the man with the plan. Bigelow has plowed about half a billion of his own dollars into a seemingly far-fetched idea to build privately owned space stations, part of a larger effort to stimulate a new space race, one in which commercial interests would lead the way. In a little over 10 years, he’s managed to put two of his own spacecraft into orbit and recently partnered with NASA in an ambitious master plan to solicit proposals from like-minded billionaires and corporations to get humans back into space on a permanent basis. He thinks big.

A few years ago, Bigelow was invited to brainstorm ideas for exploiting the incredible infrastructure of the former Nevada Test Site, to see if there might be a way to reinvigorate it and give a shot in the arm to Nevada’s struggling economy. Included in that private discussion group were the likes of Gov. Brian Sandoval and Sen. Harry Reid, as well as defense and aerospace contractors.

The idea he developed would certainly be an economic game-changer. Bigelow and his team literally wrote a book about their idea — a National Pandemic Center, to be built within the former NTS, possibly in the Yucca Mountain complex once designated as a repository for nuclear waste. In a nutshell, the NPC would be an underground version of Noah’s Ark, a refuge where up to 5,000 people could live for an extended period and then re-emerge once the threat had dissipated. It would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 billion to build, but would create more than 20,000 permanent jobs. Bigelow thinks it would be self-supporting after construction because it would serve as a permanent, world-class laboratory for research into all sorts of complicated scientific challenges, including how to minimize the threat of future pandemics.

But the center would be more than an economic stimulus. “The threat of a massive pandemic grows more real by the day,” Bigelow told me earlier this week. “An asteroid could hit the Earth someday, but the chances of that happening is in the millions, maybe billions to one. Terrorists have been trying to obtain a nuclear device, but even if they could get a bomb into the country, the worst damage would be localized. A viral pandemic is entirely possible, maybe even likely.”

This is the one topic that causes our national security experts to break out into cold sweats, and it’s the one topic they don’t like to discuss in public. When a team of scientists wrote a paper about how easy it would be for terrorists or others to modify and deploy a bio-weapon, such as a mutated strain of avian flu — specifically the one known as H5N1 — Homeland Security officials stopped the publication for more than a year. They didn’t want to put any ideas into the twisted heads of maniacal nutballs, foreign or domestic. But the secret is out. The threat is real. “Someone could make this stuff in the kind of lab that is found on any college campus,” Bigelow says. “H5N1 has been duplicated in labs all over the world, and its lethality is 50-60 percent.”

By comparison, the worst pandemic in history was the flu that killed 20 million people back in 1918. More than 100 million were infected, meaning its lethality rate was 20 percent. The World Health Organization wrote last year that an H5N1 pandemic that began somewhere in Asia could spread around the globe within a week. And since the world produces only 300 million or so anti-flu vaccine doses per year, most of the world’s population would be at risk immediately.

“This isn’t like other weapons of mass destruction. H5N1 would spread on its own. It is highly infectious. Within a few weeks, you could see 50 million deaths in this country,” Bigelow says. “And the people I talk to about it, people in Homeland Security, in the DOD and other agencies, know there is pretty much nothing we can do to stop it from getting into the country. The people who would be willing to unleash this stuff are already living here.”

The National Pandemic Center would be one way to make sure that human civilization would survive a pandemic. Unlike the existing underground “arks,” such as Cheyenne Mountain or RavenRock, this one would be a haven for people other than military leaders or the political elite. One of Bigelow’s chief scientific advisors, microbiologist Dr. Colm Kelleher, says a potential list of about 13 million people would be drawn up, and the 5,000 “ark” survivors would be chosen from that list based on particular skills that would be needed in the post-pandemic world. Doctors and engineers would be needed, for example, but also welders, teachers and others with solid skills.

Bigelow says his idea was well-received, but it has gone nowhere because no one wants to spend the money. The reality is that the country probably needs a dozen or more of these centers, though in the current political climate, there is zero chance that even a single center will be funded. It would be a terrible mistake to let this idea die, because failure to act could eventually mean humanity would die, too. The threat is real, and grows more likely every day. Pandemics have happened in the past and they will happen again. Given our perceived reputation as the planetary capital of greed and depravity, it is entirely possible that a fanatical nincompoop would pick our town as the place to uncork his planet-killing poison.

One footnote: Because I have known Bigelow for years, and because I co-wrote a book with Kelleher, I had no problem asking whether they might need an experienced broadcaster in the ark. They assured me they would try to save me a seat. I’d be happy to put a good word in for CityLife readers when the day comes.

GEORGE KNAPP is a Peabody Award-winning investigative reporter for KLAS Channel 8.