Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Enough Biodefence?

When did Noah build the ark? Before the storm. He didn’t wait around while the rains began. So too should be the case concerning the United States’ attitude about bioterrorism. Without a first-rate plan of action, a biological agent’s release on a mass scale would render us defenseless against major consequences.

In light of the “shrinking” world due to globalization, increased communication as well as travel ease, bioterrorism remains a major concern for state security officials. Bioterrorism has the potential to affect every aspect of our daily lives. Our food, our water and the air we breathe; biological agents have the ability to infiltrate nearly every man-made structure and can cause severe, mass-scale damage as well as result in the death of millions (Atlas, p. 465). However, the author of the editorial entitled “Enough Biodefence” proclaims that biodefence is over-hyped and that the United States is spending too much money on defense, a tendency that could cause us to overlook other threats. He blames the country for allowing the Bush administration to enact biodefence measures without proper criticism. His major points deal with the overabundance of biodefence centers as well as facility location.

“Are we overdoing it?” That is the basic question one may ask concerning biodefence. I would argue that we, as a nation, are not "overdoing" biodefence. At lest ten nations have biological weapons capabilities and not all of them are what we might consider stable countries (Henderson, p. 1280). Therefore the potential for harm is very real. Bioterrorism is a serious threat; one that many experts agree is much more likely than the “loose nuke” theory that floats around in security circles. The terrorist group Aum Shinrikyo already carried out a biological attack on the Tokyo subway system and defected Soviet scientists have claimed that the Soviet Union has “stockpiles of smallpox, anthrax and other deadly agents” (Atlas, p. 260). Getting these agents is considerably easier than acquiring the technology and specialization to effectively create a working nuclear bomb. For example, the Soviet Union’s collapse left numerous biological facilities vulnerable to break-ins. That these facilities have deadly agents is a fear for many. Also, corruption within that region makes the selling of biological agents an easy, secretive and real possibility (Henderson, p. 1280). Considering the pandemonium created by the SARS outbreak or, similarly, the bird flu breakout that found its way to Europe, the reach of a bioterrorism attack is much wider than that of a nuclear explosion. Nuclear weapons get the most hype out of the three weapons of mass destruction (chemical, biological, nuclear) because they create the most immediate and disturbing images, but biological weapons are the ones that are the most feared because we are least prepared for an attack by these weapons. Think about it. Chemical spills, fires at plants, etc. occur more often than does a release into the atmosphere of deadly biological agents. Most cities, and particularly major cities, have protocols in for chemical spills.

On the other hand, biological attacks would be hard to detect because a chemical release could be quiet, colorless, tasteless…you get the picture (Henderson, p. 1279). Unlike a nuclear explosion that would eliminate most victims quickly, biological warfare is a slower process that not only has the ability to spread farther, but also affect the morale of a population where members keep asking “Am I next?” resulting in a terrified, unproductive and standstill population. During a biological attack, chaos or inaction would hinder any defensive response.

The author of the Nature editorial argues that the threat is not immediate, insinuating that these weapons are hard to acquire. This is not true. Many of the naturally occurring agents such as plague, anthrax and botulism do occur naturally, and although a level of expertise is needed in order to identify strains that are deadly enough to cause widespread problems, it is possible. That said, while an average Joe may not be able to acquire these agents, terrorists groups such as Al-Qaeda with the money and expertise could buy these agents on the black market and use them against the United States or another enemy. The threat is very real (Henderson, p. 1281).

So what biological agents are the most threatening? According to one author, smallpox and anthrax are the two most viable threats. Scientists are aware of the potential threats these two agents can cause because of studies done on affected populations after accidental releases from certain facilities. The fear of smallpox is that virtually everyone is susceptible. Smallpox vaccinations are not available because the disease was eliminated years ago and in the case study 30% of those infected died. There is also the fear of secondary breakouts, estimations as high as ten secondary attacks (Henderson, p. 1281).

Similarly to smallpox, anthrax would be virtually impossible to detect before mass infection if released into the air. Individuals could show signs of infection in as little as two days and as many as eight weeks, giving the disease a large infection opportunity. The disease, although more lethal than a cold, would leave the victim with cold-like symptoms, such as headaches, fever and cough, thus making an outbreak hard to diagnose. Individuals infected usually die within 72 hours and the fatality rate is 80%. Even scarier: there are no civilian stockpiles of anthrax vaccine (Henderson, p. 1282).

The author’s second aspect concerns the idea of building such facilities within populated areas. While this is a valid question, I believe that an urban biodefence center is more beneficial than potentially dangerous. The author alludes to a potential attack on such a facility. While possible, a successful attack is highly unlikely. First, these buildings are not going to be shacks erected in the middle of Time’s Square with a sign that says “Biological Agents Inside!!!” These facilities will be some of the more protected buildings in the world, considering their contents. Thick walls, access codes, restricted areas, cleaning areas; you name it, these buildings will have it. As long as the buildings are properly structured so that there aren’t any cracks from which the agents can escape, everything should be OK. Not to mention it would probably be easier getting the agents from another country than breaking into one of our facilities.

Also, large facilities will need to be staffed by many employees and will need to be near policy makers and other resources, only found in big cities. While some laboratories are located in the desert, these usually deal with forces (such as electro magnetic pulse bombs and highly explosive materials) that, if located in cities, would cause a lot of destruction. This is not the case with biological agents.

Not only would these facilities need to be close to resources, but in the case of a biological attack, response teams and experts working at the facilities would need to be as close as possible. Imagine the slow reaction time and potential escalation of an attack in New York City if the experts are located in Area 51. Quick response times are crucial in such attacks.

So, in response to the editorialist's question as to whether we are overdoing biodefence, I would say “No.” Considering the reality of the threat and the number of agents that can be used against the U.S. (ricin, plague, smallpox, etc.), the number of facilities cannot be described as “more than needed.” Each facility can only do so much and because there are so many threats, many facilities are needed.

Also, while the argument that biological facilities within highly populated areas pose serious risks to the population may have some legitimacy, the right procedures and security measures could ensure a safe base of operations within an urban area. During a crisis, experts working at the facilities would be needed immediately and because the destruction that EMP bombs as well as explosives cause is much more dangerous for cities during testing, they, not biological agents would be the real hazards for facilities within a city.


Atlas, Ronald M. “Combating the Threat of Biowarfare and Bioterrorism.” BioScience. Vol.49, No. 6 (Jun., 1999), pp. 465-477.

Atlas, Ronald M. “Review: Countering Biological Weapons' Grave Threat." BioScience. Vol. 50, No. 3 (Mar., 2000), pp. 260-262.

“Enough Biodefence.” Nature, 11/2/2006, Vol. 444 Issue 7115, p2-2, 1p; DOI: 10.1038/444002b.

Henderson, Donald A. “The Looming Threat of Bioterrorism.” Science. New Series, Vol. 283, No. 5406 (Feb., 1999), pp. 1279-1282.


michellefurlong said...

this is the lamest blog i've read all day. i tried to make it through your post but couldn't get past your first sentence when you spelled "ark" like a geometric shape. quit wasting my time.

yes.. i still have my blogger name from last year.

michellefurlong said...

oh and way to spell defense right.