The Debate

Tackling Bioterrorism

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The Debate

Tackling Bioterrorism

Preparing for bioterrorism requires concerted national and international effort. Not everyone seems on board.

The United States is vulnerable to an attack that could kill hundreds of thousands. But the big threat might not come from a nuclear device falling into the wrong hands, and certainly not from a brigade of suicide bombers. Instead, argues James Glassman in an article Forbes article this week, “terrorists could spray Bacillus anthracis from crop-dusters over football stadiums. Or they could send intentionally infected fanatics out to spread the smallpox virus through a crowded city.” In other words, bioterrorism.

As Harvard’s Graham Allison, an expert on proliferation issues, noted in the New York Times: “Nuclear terrorism is a preventable catastrophe, and the reason it’s preventable is because the material to make a nuclear bomb can’t be made by terrorists. But in the bio case — oh, my God! Can I prevent terrorists from getting into their hands anthrax or other pathogens? No! Even our best efforts can’t do that. I think the amazing thing is that one hasn’t seen more bioterrorism, given the relative ease of making a bioweapon and the relative difficulty of defending.”

It’s an issue I took a close interest in when writing an in-depth piece for The Diplomat a few years back looking at how seriously the threat was being taken in Asia. The short answer is that it’s being taken very seriously in some countries, especially those that are geographically most vulnerable.

Take the city state of Singapore, for example. While an attack on a coastal U.S. city would pose serious challenges in terms of evacuations or quarantining residents, in Singapore there’s nowhere to go.

“If you go to Singapore and you drive around, you see that if there’s an event in a country of a couple of million, because of the size of it, they’re wiped out,” Richard Love, a professor and senior research fellow at the Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction at the National Defense University in Washington, DC, noted to me back then. “The threat is so great because there’s no defense in depth. They have got to catch whatever it is early, and they have to catch it at the border, because right at the border is right at their homeland.”

That was back in 2009. So what progress has Asia made since then? In Singapore specifically there was an interesting breakthrough last year in tackling Ricin, one of the toxins most feared for its bioterrorism potential, not least because it is 1,000 times more poisonous than cyanide. Back in July, a team of scientists found what they described as the recipe for “antidotes” that might help neutralize Ricin. Particularly interesting is the fact that this “antidote” might also prove useful in beating Pseudomonas Exotoxin, which is behind many of the hospital-acquired infections in immune-compromised patients across the globe.

This kind of double breakthrough is important because it suggests a non-bioterrorism application. Why does this matter? Because as Glassman noted in the case of the United States, unless the government makes a long-term commitment to developing and purchasing medical countermeasures to bioterrorism, “the companies that produce and develop these medicines will not be able to continue to make them. The market is limited, the liability risk is high, and the firms have to make long-term investments that now seem highly dubious without more certainty from the federal government.”

Of course at a time when the government is focused on budget cuts, forward looking efforts like this have a tendency to fall by the wayside. It’s encouraging, then, that someone like Glassman – who can by no means be dismissed as a big government advocate – isn’t shy of countenancing an expanded role for government when necessary. (It’s hard to explain to anyone not following U.S. politics these days what heresy it is to suggest this.)

Another issue of concern to scientists and policymakers I discovered during my research in 2009 was the lack of coordination on the issue. It sounds clichéd these days to talk about our globalized world, and how threats know no borders. Yet this doesn’t change the reality that the challenge of the spread of diseases is increasingly linked to questions of greater intercontinental mobility. The same applies to the bioterrorism threat.

So you would have hoped that after the experience with China and SARS in 2003 – when Beijing caused huge frustration by not sharing accurate and up to date information with the international community – that especially in Asia, the importance of coordinating efforts to understand such threats would have been clear. But you’d be wrong.

As Reuters noted this week, the World Health Organization has long tried to persuade Indonesia and other countries to share their samples of avian flu (H5N1) with the international scientific community.

“Previously, Indonesia had declined to do so under a principle its government called ‘viral sovereignty,’ by which it meant that microbes found in Indonesia belonged to the state and did not have to be shared with outsiders.”

One can only hope that it won’t take another SARS – or something much worse – to shake governments out of their complacency or unnecessary secrecy.