One decade after letters containing anthrax spores killed five people and infected 17 others in the Eastern United States, there has been a veritable blizzard of news articles, research reports and seminars, all aimed at answering the question: are we better prepared for a biological weapons attack now than we were 10 years ago?
A review of some of what’s been published in the last month or so seems to indicate that the consensus answer is “yes – but not as much as we could be.”
Biological threats occupy a somewhat unusual niche as compared to chemical, radiological, nuclear and explosive threats (known collectively as CBRNE). When prioritizing security risks, there is a general tendency to focus mainly on threats with the highest likelihood as well as those with the highest consequences. The trickiness with bio threats, whether contagious on non-contagious, is that they’re neither as high-consequence as a nuclear attack nor as high-likelihood as a chemical or even radiological attack, let alone one caused by conventional explosives. A bio event, furthermore, is unique in that it can be intentionally caused by humans or equally occur through a naturally-generated outbreak, which means that bio preparedness, protection, mitigation, response and recovery efforts are altogether more complex (read more agencies involved and more resources needed) than for other CBRNE threats.
So how are we doing? Participants in a seminar at the Center for American Progress yesterday catalogued several areas of progress, including:
- The creation of the Department of Homeland Security and new bio-security programs at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), up from a single program at the Pentagon;
- A Strategic National Stockpile of antibiotics, vaccines, antitoxins and other critical medical equipment and supplies, plus related government acquisition programs;
- Government agency support for research, development and acquisition of new biological countermeasures; and
- Better coordination between the public safety and public health communities.
The speakers warned, however, that continued Congressional budget cuts to bio-preparedness programs are putting these and other advances into jeopardy. (We do wish the Center would publish a written transcript of the event, titled Anthrax Revisited: The Outlook for Biopreparedness in the United States, since the video is nearly three hours long. One of the participants did produce a paper that made many of the same points, however.)
Although the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has not published any recent reports specifically on bio-terrorism, it has addressed the issue in other 2011 reports, including ones relating to interagency duplication of effort, combating CBRNE threats, public health preparedness, and CBRNE coordination between DHS and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
The most relentlessly negative assessment of the current state of bio-preparedness comes from the non-profit WMD Center, run by ex-senators Bob Graham and Jim Talent. On Wednesday, it issued a Bio-Response Report Card that gives the U.S. government poor marks for eight different categories of bio-preparedness at six different levels of event severity, from small-scale non-contagious to a contagious global crisis. For example, it gives ‘F’ grades in 15 categories on the matrix, including for how the government identifies the source of a biological event at almost every level of severity, and for the development and approval, availability, and dispensation of medical countermeasures. There are 15 ‘Ds’, seven ‘Cs’, eight ‘Bs’ (all of them in the two least-severe event levels) and no ‘As’ in the above-mentioned categories, which also include detection and diagnosis, communication, medical management and environmental cleanup. It also noted that advances in bio-preparedness have not nearly kept pace with major scientific and technological strides that could be used by terrorists in the weaponization and delivery of pathogens.
While the report received mostly uncritical coverage, one blogger said the Center’s report is the “same script they have always written: Calamity is coming if we don’t spend more of bioterror defense. And anyone can make biological weapons. Easy.” And he called the authors the “Graham-Talent sock puppet lobby” for bio-defense funding. Ouch. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists Online similarly dissed last year’s report card, though it used more scientific language.
While much of the focus in the past month has been on bio-security preparedness, some attention is being paid to the threat side of the equation as well. For instance, intelligence gleaned from the raid on Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound confirmed earlier indications that al-Qaeda is intent on acquiring or developing biological agents and weaponizing and deploying them against Western targets. And the proliferation of new delivery vehicles such as unmanned aerial vehicles presents another potential increase in the threat likelihood of a biological attack, according to some terrorism analysts. Others have focused on advances in technologies to detect bacterial threats such as anthrax by using lasers (thanks, Global Security Newswire, for both links). And a new National Academies report asks whether prepositioning antibiotics in U.S. cities could shorten response times to a bio attack.
And so the measure / countermeasure / counter-countermeasure cycle continues…
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