Heeding the warning of bioterrorism

The warning is clear:  Bioterrorism is a serious danger to the United States, says the Report Card Grading Government on Protecting the United States, released Tuesday by the congressionally-mandated commission charged with assessing threats of weapons of mass destruction.  We are unprepared for a catastrophic bio-attack, and the rest of the world is in far worse shape.

The commission’s warning is not the first high-level statement to focus attention on bioterrorism.  Hopefully, it will prompt the action that the threat deserves.

Disease weapons have an awful capacity to infect tens of thousands of casualties (perhaps far more).  Al Qaeda leaders have long recognized that disease weapons are a uniquely cheap way to spread mass panic.  Indeed, intentionally inflicted disease ideally serves the goals of terrorism.

An attack could happen invisibly, and no one would know until victims arrive in emergency rooms and morgues.  And anyone who can make enough lethal germs for one city can make enough for dozens of cities.  The attacks can go on and on until the perpetrators are captured or killed.

The danger is global.  Lethal biological agents and the laboratories to weaponize them are on every continent.  Disease weapons can be readily smuggled through any airport.  A contagious disease will spread across nations unimpeded by fences or border guards.  As the President recently stated, “a biological incident that results in mass casualties anywhere in the world increases the risk to all nations from biological threats.”

Moreover, bioscience’s progress opens new and wondrous ways to make disease weapons.  Technological barriers that have thwarted terrorists from inflicting disease are dissolving; eradicated diseases can be synthetically reincarnated; and altogether new diseases can be created.  Looking forward, the threats of terrorists, criminals, or lunatics using disease weapons will grow.

Whatever the risk is today, it will be greater tomorrow.

We do not have to be vulnerable.  Much can be done to reduce dangers of bioterrorism by focusing on its global dimensions. 

This spring, President Obama will convene a Global Nuclear Terrorism Summit.  That is fine, but bioterrorism is far more likely than nuclear terrorism.  The President should call for a Global Biological Terrorism Summit and make this a foreign policy priority.  Our allies appreciate the risks of bioterrorism and would join in a synergistic strategy that encourages progress on two principal challenges.

First is strengthening capabilities for interdicting bioterror preparations.  Disease weapons can be made in nondescript buildings with few tell-take signs.  It is foolhardy to rely on the remote surveillance techniques that only recently identified Iran’s secret nuclear weapons facility to find and stop bioterrorists from making disease weapons.  

Better intelligence is needed about where lethal biological agents exist and where they are being transported.  We need more and better trained eyes on the ground.  Local law enforcers are the best positioned to identify strange activities, but most foreign police could walk past a bioterrorism laboratory without a clue.  Strengthening global monitoring and detection capacities to stop bioterrorism should be the Summit’s first challenge.

Yet, no matter how capably we try to prevent a bio-attack, there can be no guarantee that an attacker will be stopped.  We need to be prepared.  Thus, the Summit’s second challenge is how to have enough medicines (antidotes and vaccines) to treat victims and contain the spread of disease.  Delivery networks must be established to rapidly move these medicines to wherever they are needed, and emergency responders must be authorized, equipped and trained to administer treatment to huge populations.

The challenge of preparedness is not centrally about devoting enormous resources to new medicines, although better medicines to treat emerging diseases will be useful long-term.  For now, we should increase stockpiles of available medicines and link those stockpiles to logistical capacities for rapid deployment.  A global transport system that can move medicine is the best way to prepare against pandemic disease.

Currently, the United States bears too much of the global burden of confronting bioterrorism.  When foreign officials need to be trained to recognize and interrupt bioterrorism (for example, in connection with world sporting events), U.S. government personnel lead the way.  When diagnostic facilities need to be built, the U.S. devotes the resources and expertise to the effort.  And when medicines are needed to treat anthrax, those medicines come from the U.S. stockpile.

United States leadership in this context is commendable, but bioterrorism’s global dangers compel engagement of foreign nations.  Solutions will be more successful if our allies comparably appreciate why bioterrorism should be a high priority and how collectively we can reduce risks.  A Global Summit would be a valuable step in the right direction.