Robert Kadlec says U.S. needs to focus on bioweapon countermeasures

Dr. Robert Kadlec, a renowned bioterrorism expert, recently conducted a workshop on the nature and policy of biodefense strategy in the United States.

Kadlec, who spent 26 years as a career officer and physician in the United States Air Force, is the director of PTRM Biodefense and Public Health Practice. He is a former special assistant to the president for Homeland Security and senior director for biodefense policy on the Homeland Security Council.

Military and non-military representatives from 10 countries were in attendance to hear Kadlec discuss the evolution of U.S. biodefense policy since World War II and how the United States views the unique set of challenges posed by bioterrorism.

Kadlec said that the nature of biological weapons makes them particularly dangerous when recent technological developments are taken into account. Yet, from the beginning of U.S. efforts to develop pathogens as an offense weapons, U.S. policy-makers and scientists recognized their strategic potential.

"These things quickly achieved nuclear equivalency," Kadlec said of the U.S. weapons program in the 1960s. "They could kill as many people as a nuclear weapon. And the target was people. Not only did they work, they exceeded people's expectations."

Because bioweapons have not been dispersed on a scale large enough to cause the kind of widespread destruction seen from atomic weapons, Kadlec warned that until proven or disproven, their capabilities cannot be discounted.

Two years ago, a major U.S. government report on bioterrorism warned that there was a likelihood that biological weapons would be used somewhere in the world sometime within five years. Kadlec pointed out to the audience that only three years remain in the prediction.

"That is a sobering estimate, but one that is well-founded," Kadlec said. "It is not only based on the intents of our list of enemies, but also on the notion that, in today's world, as happened in the U.S., disaffected people, biologists, could also conduct these attacks. Biology lets an individual basically become a destroyer of worlds. As much as we are concerned about terrorists becoming biologists, we should be concerned about biologists becoming terrorists."

Recent events in Syria point to the danger of existing stockpiles of biological weapons falling into the hands of groups that have been actively, and publicly pursuing their acquisition for years.

"There is a risk to those stockpiles," Kadlec said. "Who is going to get their hands on this stuff? This is the reality that we have to deal with.

Kadlec described U.S. policy development on biodefense since 9/11 as 'imperfect incrementalism.' "We never get it right the first time, and we, subsequently, incrementally, have to go back and revisit and improve things."

Current U.S. thinking on the nature of biodefense has become increasingly aggressive in terms of vaccination planning as policy makers have started to recognize the value of limiting potential damages, but, perhaps more importantly, as experts have noted the value in providing a viable deterrent.

The creation of a substantial stockpile of effective countermeasures that can be delivered effectively is now considered critical in preparing for a potential disaster.

"If they can't get it to people, then what's the point?" Kadlec said.

Kadlec emphasized that timing is critical, and to ensure that first responders can do their jobs, they need to be protected. He envisions the U.S. government offering countermeasures to those that will likely need to enter potentially dangerous situations to care for those caught in the middle.

"You need a cadre of people that you can count on that ain't gonna run the other way," Kadlec said. "We have to make sure that they don't think twice about doing their job, that they won't think twice about their family."

The conference was held at the Washington offices of Emergent BioSolutions, Inc., the only producer of a U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved anthrax vaccine, BioThrax. Over the past several years, the biodefense company is responsible for vaccinating nearly 2.7 million people, mostly military and first responders, against anthrax exposure.