The Debate

Congress, Bioterrorism and Asia

Recent Features

The Debate

Congress, Bioterrorism and Asia

A warning by an ex-U.S. senator and an outbreak of bird flu in Taiwan are reminders of the need for collaboration.

Last week, I wrote on the danger partisanship posed to U.S. policymaking, including foreign policy. But as former Sen. Bob Graham has suggested, political turf wars aren’t all about partisanship – politicians are quite happy to place their own influence in Congress’s myriad committees above the nation’s good.

This likely won’t come as a surprise to most, but it’s a danger worth repeating in light of comments Graham made late last week on bioterrorism, an issue that I’ve taken an interest in before in The Diplomat.

Graham led the Weapons of Mass Destruction Committee, which reported to Congress four years ago about the threat of terrorism and proliferation.

“The Commission believes that much more can be done to prevent biological weapons proliferation and terrorism – even as we recognize it is unrealistic to think that we can completely eliminate the possibility of misuse,” the report noted. “To date, the U.S. government has invested most of its nonproliferation efforts and diplomatic capital in preventing nuclear terrorism. The Commission believes that it should make the more likely threat – bioterrorism – a higher priority.”

So, has the government responded adequately? Certainly to read the latest threat preparedness report issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, one would think so. At the end of March this year, the agency reported that:

“Chemical and biological agent detection, confirmation, and characterization capabilities have improved in key laboratories across the Nation, contributing to improved biosurveillance capabilities.”

But Graham told the Huffington Post that the report “doesn’t jibe” with a report card by the WMD Center, and he dismissed the FEMA report as “an extremely and dangerously optimistic assessment” of the nation’s ability to respond to a biological attack.

“The greatest WMD threat facing the United States is not nuclear or chemical or radiological. It’s biological…As our most significant threat, it deserves to have a permanent, accountable, sufficient visibility so that this issue can be kept before the public.”

Frustratingly, this is despite the fact that there is actually a bill in Congress that would help address some of these concerns, one that has bipartisan support. The problem is that it needs to go through five House committees – and that’s before the Senate gets a say.

“Congress has organized itself in a way to make it impossible for anything related to terrorism to be enacted,” Graham notes.

How is this tied to the Asia-Pacific? There are a few reasons why I thought the issue worth highlighting now. For a start, as Frederick Burkle, director of the Asia-Pacific Center for Biosecurity, Disaster and Conflict Research, told me when I was researching my piece on biosecurity, “I think most of the ‘authorities’ would say that the one country that has it together is the United States…So if the U.S. feels [bioterrorism] is a big threat. I’d have to say it’s probably more so in Asia.”

Asian cities are amongst the most densely populated in the world – 15 of the 20 most densely populated cities are found in Asia, including the 10 most densely populated. And for somewhere like tiny city-state Singapore, there’s really nowhere to go in the event of a biological contingency, whether terrorist-related or natural – there’s simply no geographical defensive depth.

With this in mind, Asian nations will have been paying particularly close attention to the decision to allow the publication this month of controversial research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that shows how relatively few mutations in nature would enable the bird flu virus to be transmissible to mammals.

The controversy focused around the fact that some believed that the research could effectively act as a recipe for those seeking to create a biological weapon. Such concerns are understandable, but as Yoshihiro Kawaoka, who led the study, argued: “By identifying mutations that facilitate transmission among mammals, those whose job it is to monitor viruses circulating in nature can look for these mutations so measures can be taken to effectively protect human health.”

The reality is that the threats from natural mutations or deliberate engineering are global threats, and they therefore need the international scientific community engaged and willing to share information. Indeed, the Chicago Tribune notes that a subset of the mutations identified by Kawaoka’s team has already been detected in some viruses circulating in poultry flocks in Egypt and parts of Southeast Asia, underscoring the importance of the issue for Asia.

And there was another reminder of the bird flu threat last week with news that Taiwan had confirmed another case of the H5N2 strain of bird flu. The H5N2 strain poses less of a threat to humans than the more notorious H5N1, but this is the sixth outbreak already this year, resulting in the culling of tens of thousands of chickens.

But the more deadly H5N1 virus has also loomed in Asia in 2012, with Vietnam struggling to contain an outbreak that had “outsmarted” vaccines used to protect poultry flocks. This new strain had earlier been “identified in China and was also recently found in Bangladesh and Nepal, where it likely spread via wild birds,” AP quoted Jan Slingenbergh, a senior animal health officer at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, as saying.

The path of this latest strain should highlight as much as anything else the limits of a simply national approach. The U.S. decision to remove its objection to the UWM paper was a good step, but it’s also clear the Congress needs to get its house in order on this issue. The world, including Asia, will be watching it on this and other issues.