Bioterror: We aren’t ready
As the coronavirus explodes within China and the number of fatalities skyrockets, there is growing concern that this may not be a natural event. A Chinese BSL-4 lab connected to the country’s efforts to acquire biological agents from abroad is located close to Wuhan, the city where the outbreak originated. The proximity of the lab to the epicenter of the virus is troubling and warrants serious questions, but regardless of whether the outbreak ultimately turns out to be naturally occurring, the global crisis raises a critical question.
If this were a bioweapons attack, would we be ready?
If for example, Iran, in retaliation for recent American actions including the killing of General Qassem Soleimani, were to unleash a biological attack, would we be prepared? If smallpox — perhaps the greatest killer in the history of mankind — were used as a weapon against us, would we be able to respond?
The answer, unfortunately, is a resounding “No.”
Ever since the Anthrax attacks almost two decades ago, we have talked a great deal about bioweapons and bioterrorism. As is the case with far too many of our homeland security initiatives, however, we have achieved far too little.
Much of the money we have spent has been wasted. We poured hundreds of millions of dollars, for instance, into biological sensors to be deployed throughout America’s cities, only to find out they worked poorly, if at all. We are now compounding that error by deploying a new wave of sensors, which are unlikely to perform any better.
Our defensive measures against bioweapons are fragmented and controlled by a vast array of different agencies and departments, seemingly incapable of unified or timely action. Nowhere is there a sense of urgency. There should be.
Amongst nation states, at least Russia, China, North Korea and Iran are believed to have biological weapons programs. Virtually every terrorist group on the planet has some degree of interest in biological weapons.
Working with and using biological weapons may seem to the uninitiated to be difficult and expensive. It need not be. The equipment necessary to work with biological organisms can be purchased online. A good lab tech has all the expertise required. We may think of delivery systems for such weapons as being complex. A terrorist group seeking to spread a disease inside the United States might simply infect a number of its members with the disease, have them attend crowded sporting events and allow nature to take its course.
We don’t need to waste billions more dollars. We don’t need new agencies.
We need intelligence. Waiting for sensors to tell us that smallpox is loose in New York City should not be our first option.
Assuming our intelligence fails, we need a system that alerts us quickly in the event that an attack has happened. This means sensors in major cities, and it means equipment better than that we have now. Endless false alarms inevitably mean people start ignoring alerts. Delays in the processing of samples mean we are already behind the curve when an attack is detected.
In addition to sensors, we should ensure that we have a regularly exercised capability to compile data from hospital emergency rooms and detect attacks that way. Even if a sensor is not tripped, the compilation of intake information from across cities can, in a very low-tech way, tell us something horrible just happened.
Perhaps most importantly, we have to maintain and exercise our response capabilities. We have a large stockpile of emergency drugs and vaccines in what is known as the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS). That is a good first step, but it is not enough.
Many of the medications in this stockpile expire. They must be replaced.
We must also always be doing everything in our power to improve the effectiveness of the medications we do possess and stay ahead of our adversaries. The threat from smallpox is a case in point. While eradicated in the wild, smallpox continues to exist in stores in the United States and Russia. There are also reports that Iran and North Korea keep their own clandestine stockpiles. Beyond that, Canadian researchers have recently demonstrated the ability to make what amounts to synthetic smallpox.
Smallpox has a 30 percent mortality rate. It incubates in the human body for two weeks during which time it can be passed from one person to another, but the infected individual shows no symptoms. This means the disease may well outstrip efforts to contain it, and almost a third of the individuals exposed to it will die.
Until now. Researchers have now developed an antiviral medication known as TPOXX, which has the ability to cure individuals infected with smallpox and end the threat posed by this ancient killer. The drug has been approved by the FDA, but taking this capability from one that works in the lab to one which we can employ tomorrow if needed means money and commitment.
All of us wish we did not live in a world where terrorists and hostile nation states aspire to kill millions with biological organisms. Unfortunately, we do. Twenty years ago, we found ourselves woefully unprepared for the 9/11. Three thousand Americans died as a result.
Next time it may be far worse. Next time it may be a pandemic and entire cities decimated by disease. We cannot afford to take that chance. The time to act is now.
Charles “Sam” Faddis is a retired CIA operations officer with decades of experience undercover abroad. He took the first CIA team into Iraq in advance of the 2003 invasion and retired in 2008 as head of the CIA counterterrorism unit tracking weapons of mass destruction. He is also a former U.S. Army officer and trial attorney. Faddis is currently a senior partner with Artemis, LLC, a security-consulting firm, and the senior editor for AND Magazine. He’s also the author of “Beyond Repair: The Decline and Fall of the CIA” and, with Mike Tucker, “Operation Hotel California: The Clandestine War Inside Iraq.”
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