Experts optimistic at U.S. biosecurity outlook

U.S. biosecurity policy has made significant progress since Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and the anthrax attacks of 2001, but continues to confront myriad challenges in dealing with future biological hazards, both natural and man-made.

At a conference of biosecurity experts hosted by the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, progress made over the last 10 years was reviewed and problems for the future were outlined.

In opening remarks, Thomas Inglesby, the CEO of the Center for Biosecurity of UPMC, offered three main reasons for optimism regarding the outlook for biosecurity.

“The first reason for optimism is the community in this room," Inglesby said. "A second reason for optimism is we have U.S. science and technology as our fuel…And a third reason for optimism is the good work that has already happened.”

Not only has the community of experts been greatly expanded, as evidenced by the number of attendees at the conference, but the U.S. science and technology base has been greatly expanded and a number of programs and policies have been implemented and refined. Laboratories to quickly characterize and develop vaccines have been established. The U.S. has greatly expanded capacity and has held field exercises and coordinated planning on an inter-agency basis. Rapid distribution channels for the distribution of vaccines have been established and universal antibiotics may well be on the horizon.

Despite these advances, however, much of the conference focused on remaining shortfalls that must be addressed. Most significantly, the lack of an attack over the past 10 years and the loss of personnel in Congress and the executive branch has resulted in a “out of sight, out of mind” mentality, the experts warned.

“Progress has been significant but clearly inadequate to the problem,” Richard Danzig, chairman of the board for the Center for a New American Security, said.

In a panel on “Present and Future Biothreats,” D.A. Henderson of the UPMC Center for Biosecurity said that much more needs to be done in terms of how best to inform cities and states on how to handle biological threats, whether to shelter in place or evacuate, how to clean up after a biological attack and the necessity to lay out a coherent plan well in advance of such an event.

Danzig added that even such rudimentary questions as whether citizens should open or close windows or whether or not to vacuum remain unanswered.

There is also a tendency for decision-makers to focus planning and exercises on a one or two day event while ignoring modeling for much longer incidents and the efforts that need to be established for handling the clean up associated with a major biological attack.

According to Danzig, economic consequences have been minimized and it is probably more accurate to refer to biological attacks “not as weapons of mass destruction, but as weapons of mass disruption.”

In that regard, Randall Larsen of the WMD Center said that the Environmental Protection Agency spends 50 percent less studying how to clean up after a major incident than the military spends on the Marine Corps marching band.

In a panel on “Looking Ahead in U.S. Health Security,” Thomas Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that what keeps him awake at nights is the possibility of facing an attack for which we are unprepared.  We are “not going to face what we have prepared for,” Frieden said.

There are 44,000 fewer people working in state and local health departments today than there were two years ago,” Frieden said, and, as a result our preparations at the state and local levels in detection and response are eroding.

Andrew Weber, the assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs, raised the issue of the potential for a “lone wolf” to cause a mass destruction event.

"The potential for a lone wolf bioterrorist to launch such an attack, is not a hypothetical," Weber said.

Similarly, Nicole Lurie, the assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response at the Department of Health and Human Services, also expressed concern about facing unanticipated threats. If our detection systems prove to be inadequate to the task, we could find out about a biological attack too late to deal with it in the most efficacious manner, she warned. Globally, efforts to put in place an international detection system to recognize and respond to epidemics is also key to safeguarding the public.

For the most part the conference picked up on and expanded on the work of the 9/11 Commission, which identified biological threats as “the ultimate asymmetrical threat.”

Former Senator Jim Talent, vice chairman of the WMD Center, said that the threat environment remains “dynamic and unpredictable,” and that biological weapons were “the easiest to develop and deploy.”

The final panel, “Transformative Science in Biosecurity,” also emphasized Andrew Weber’s point that “the march of technology, which is a wonderful thing in this area, also carries with it this very substantial risk. You cannot say who will pick up these weapons and use them.”

Tara O’Toole, the Under-Secretary for Science and Technology at the Department of Homeland Security, worried that, “The accessibility of powerful technologies to people who aren’t running an army, who really are just a group of individuals, is a phenomenon that’s going on…These powerful technologies are becoming more and more available and can be used even unintentionally to very detrimental effect on a large scale.”

While Craig Venter of the Venter Institute held out the possibility of synthetic DNA leading to vaccines in hours instead of days, weeks or months, and George Poste, the chief scientist at Comples Adaptive Systems Initiative, saw promise in the fusion of molecular biology with computers as a way to speed vaccines and develop therapeutics, most shared the concern that the pace of biological sciences is far outpacing our capacity “to combat malignant uses.”

Perhaps of greatest concern was Andrew Weber’s fear that “the biggest difficulties associated with biological weapons is that when we talk about them, we’re not just talking about terrorist using these weapons like terrorist who might get a nuclear weapon, we’re talking about the ability to produce these weapons. And that then gives them the ability to repeatedly attack and reload. The question for our policing agencies is how do we thwart such an attack?”

While a host of responses were offered, including the need for research and budget constancy, enhanced capacity, more realistic planning exercises, the development of balanced portfolios and knocking down the silos that keep government agencies from greater levels of cooperation, the conference made clear that much work remains to be done.