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Bioterrorism Threat Overblown?

August 4, 2008

John Solomon pointed out About.com’s Terrorism Issues section today. I’ve never been there before, but appreciated Amy Zalman’s post from Wednesday regarding the bioterrorism threat and if it’s overblown. Even the comments were evenhanded and made some good points.

Dr. Zalman notes that:

William R. Clark, the chair emeritus of immunology at the University of California, doesn’t think that bioterrorism is a serious threat, right now. He just wrote a book on the politics of bioterrorism called Bracing for Armegeddon?[sic]

I just ordered it used from Amazon, so I hope to have a review up–someday.

Dr. Clark isn’t so sure that spending billions of dollars preparing for a bioterror threat is that great an idea. Now, I’ve heard this very same argument from lots of public health folks. Good people whose work has saved the lives of more people than anything else. I, unfortunately, when responding to them, am forced to use the same hackneyed response that homeland security folks give (and I hate, consequently): “We only have to stop them once to justify the spending.” I hate that line of thinking because, what if you don’t stop them? Does that mean the money spent was a huge waste? I like to think that it wasn’t, but that’s the way the argument has been set up.

Back to the subject at hand, Dr. Clark feels that it’s just too difficult for terrorists in a rudimentary setting to successfully weaponize biological strains for dispersal in a major city. And I actually think he’s right. The chances of some terror weapon coming out of a cave in Afghanistan are infinitesimally small. So, if that’s his only reasoning (and it is sound, though short-sighted), then he’s got an argument.

But, what about the disgruntled Dominionist anthrax scientist who drops anthrax in the mail hoping to start Armageddon? Or the very clever Afghan terrorists who head up to Vozrozhdeniye Island to pick up some of the tons of already weaponized anthrax there? Or the one guy who finds a vial of live smallpox in an abandoned former Soviet testing facility and then hops a plane to New York?

Each of these situations is possible, those each presented is sequentially less likely, but trotting out that old argument — we only have to stop one…

One of the commenters on Dr. Zalman’s article, Fred Gaggioli, seemingly gives what would be my response:

I have been involved with BT Response in the public sector since 1999. I think Mr. Clark underplays the threat but I agree that there has been waste through the grant process. We need to abandon the hysteria and limit our spending to common-sense, sustainable programs that make sense.

I believe one of the biggest benefits society can receive from the BT grants is the ability to distribute mass quantities of antibiotics (prophylaxis) and vaccines in an emergency situation. This ability would be needed for non-Bt events such as a pandemic influenza outbreak. However, most jurisdictions are pursuing Points of Distribution (POD) models that are costly to create and maintain.

I would go even further than Mr. Gaggioli in saying that bioterrorism programs should be developed in concert with increasing the capacity for all disease investigations. Another of the commenters said the following, which I also agree with, to some degree:

It becomes a public policy question – do we spend billions on responding to bioterrorism when it never happens, year after year, or do you spend the same public funds on responding to indigenous diseases like influenza, TB, cholera, etc, which continue to kill thousands every year?

I saw, why not do both? So much of homeland security spending is focused (or is supposed to be focused) on “all-hazards” planning, why can’t our bioterrorism funds and grants be used to expand the capacity for communicable disease tracking, epidemiology and surveillance? Because truthfully, if you have a staff that does and practices, every day, how to find and deal with TB, influenza, hepatitis, shigella, salmonella (see: Saintpaul outbreak), west nile virus and dozens of others, wouldn’t they be primed to catch anthrax, botulism, and smallpox?

That, of course, is my “perfect world” answer. I think that Dr. Clark is right to raise the point, but my (albeit very limited) view of his way to deal with it could be wrong. I look forward to reading his book to see if he argues against all forms of bioterror funding and planning, or for more all-hazards funding and planning. I’ll also make a point of reading Dr. Zalman’s terrorism section some more.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 4, 2008 10:12 am

    I wouldn’t discount the possibility of bioterrorism quite that much. As a crisis management professional and former military intelligence area intelligence specialist (MI equivalent of CIA’s “case officer”), I have seen us go from an age of global destruction threats to what I call “micro-threats” — the ability of single individuals to cause a lot of harm in a relatively small area.

    The Oklahoma City bombing. The U.S. Anthrax attacks. Sarin gas attacks in Japan. Human bombs in the Middle East. These required very little in the way of resources to accomplish and, as your commentary points out, access to some highly damaging substances is not nearly as controlled as it might be.

    As always, there’s no substitute for alertness on the part of every individual. Government agencies can’t possibly do it all. Israel is an excellent example of a country where every citizen understands his/her responsibility to be part of national defense and security. Hopefully, here in the U.S., we don’t have to be up against that level of threat to get smart.

    Jonathan Bernstein
    President
    Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc.

  2. August 6, 2008 8:20 pm

    Jonathan:

    Thanks for stopping by. I appreciate and completely agree with your comment.

    We definitely have a lot of work to do to more fully integrate preparedness into our lives. We missed a prime opportunity after 9/11, and now we’re undergoing the inevitable “is it so wise to spend all this money on preparedness.” Unfortunately, we didn’t get the societal benefits of the heightened sense of need for preparedness. Basically, nobody’s bought into the idea that we, as a society, need to be prepared.

    Because of this, I think we’ll see a lot more of these books and articles coming out in the next couple of years (God willing, as it’ll mean that we’ve had no more attacks); questioning the need for preparedness spending whether it be for public health or emergency management.

    In any case, keep up the great work and thanks for stopping by!

    -Jimmy

  3. Jerry Hauer permalink
    August 29, 2008 5:08 pm

    GAGGIOLI DOESN’T UNDERSTAND PODS, WHEN WE DEVELOPED THE CONCEPT IN 1998 THERE WAS NEVER AN INTENT TO HAVE ONGOING COSTS. MOST PODS CAN BE ACCOPLISHED WITH LITTLE BUT AVAILABLE DAILY USE MATERIAL. AS FOR CLARK’S ASSERTIONS, IT APPEARS HE HAS NEITHER READ THE INTELLIGENCE NOR HAS HE LOOKED AT HISTORY.
    FINALLY OUR GOAL HEN WE STARTED THE GRANT PROGRAM WAS TO BUILD A BETTER PUBLIC HEALTH INFRASTRUCTURE THAT COULD HELP WITH ALL ASPECTS OF PUBLIC HEALTH. BIOTERRORISM WAS THE RATIONAL AND FUNDING STREAM.
    THE BIGGEST WASTE OF FUNDS HAS BEEN ALL THESE SO CALLED CENTERS OF EXCELLENCE THAT ARE FUNDED TO PLEASE A CONGRESSPERSON OR SENATOR.

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  1. Bracing for Armageddon? « In Case of Emergency

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