A Biological Attack: Not If, But When?

March 13th, 2012

The 10th annual American Society for Microbiology (ASM) Biodefense conference convened in February 2012. The focus was on current technologies and approaches for combating biosecurity threats. The main takeaway of the conference for me was that the 20th Century notion of biological threat prevention is not only outdated but ineffective and unattainable. Preventing an attack is nearly impossible because it is too easy to create a biological weapon under the radar. I would argue that it is a matter of time rather than a matter of possibility that we will be faced with another seminal biosecurity threat. The question is, can we mitigate the threat and respond to it with 21st Century tools?

Similarly, we cannot anticipate what we do not know about the still looming, uncharacterized infectious diseases in the wild. Scientists and policymakers concede that past experiences (e.g. 2001 Anthrax attacks, the 2004 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic and the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic) have shown no matter the extent of investment in developing novel vaccines and therapeutics, it is not possible to prevent a biological attack. Adding to the consternation is that it is difficult to predict the timing, location, severity, cost, resource allocation and social burden a biological event might have. So are we faced with an insurmountable challenge?

The reality of biosecurity threats is keeping government officials on edge. One reason is that the development of biological weapons is unlike that of nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons require a significant investment of a country’s resources for enrichment of nuclear materials and extensive development of dispersal vehicles and explosive devices. In contrast, biological weapons only require technical expertise in molecular biology, a relatively small investment in creating amenable laboratory settings and modeling capabilities to identify effective dispersal methods. It is therefore very reasonable to expect radical governments and terrorists have the resources to eventually develop deadly biological weapons. There are plenty of examples in history to support this worry (e.g. the 1984 Oregon 1984 Rajneeshee bioterror attack or the 2001 anthrax attacks) and technological advances are making it easier for terrorist organizations to attain this capability. We should not forget that we may not even have to wait for a weaponized biological agent to wreak havoc and cost thousands of lives because the threat of emerging infectious diseases is on the rise. While highly-pathogenic emerging infectious diseases are not the same as weaponized biological agents in terms of the potential for causing concentrated devastating harm to society, their potential to spread globally and afflict thousands of individuals is equally worrisome. Both the scientific community and government officials recognize that these threats are clear and present dangers and action must be taken to mitigate them.

There is encouraging news to take from the conference. Government officials are encouraged by the recently organized 2011 Biological Weapons Convention Review Conference (BWC Rev Con), which has the ability to bring together government experts, scientific societies and trade associations to discuss new approaches to addressing biosecurity threats. This is a chance for them to realistically assess current biosecurity threats in light of available technologies, and to examine the potential those technologies have. Such deliberative discussions have created productive efforts to draft new policies and procedures to meet 21st Century standards. Success already can be measured by the willingness of the World Health Organization to be involved in the BWC treaties.

On another positive note, the recent BWC Rev Con has shown there is a willingness among participating countries to offer their capabilities in responding to a biological event and assist those countries in need. This creates an integrated and internationally collaborative environment based on mutual interests of protecting citizens from all biosecurity threats. A benefit of this collaborative venture is that everyone is realizing that a successful biodefense strategy fosters good relationships because no biological threat heeds boundaries.

The take home message from the 10th annual ASM Biodefense Conference is that biosecurity threats are a real and looming threat, and mitigation of these threats is both a political and a scientific issue. On the one hand, governments need to acknowledge that the threat is a national security concern and there is a need for oversight of what is going on in their country and be able to share this information with the international community. On the other hand, international collaboration needs to occur among scientists on developing treatments, therapeutics and new technologies (e.g., sentinel devices, low-resource setting diagnostic devices) to create effective tools for mitigation and response. So, are we faced with an insurmountable challenge? Well, we are never going to talk anyone out of developing biological weapons or prevent the human population from being exposed to the next infectious disease, but we can reduce the impact a biosecurity threat might have with better vaccines, effective drugs for post-exposure and implement rapid diagnostics to identify threats and respond appropriately.

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