Bioterrorism Threat Overblown?
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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