The author is a Director of the Sunshine Project USA, a non-profit organization working to prevent development and use of biological weapons.
Contrary to what the US public is now being told, biodefense does not offer durable protection from the threat of biological weapons. In order to win, biodefense must overcome the infinite variability of nature itself. That is an impossible task.
It is a disconcerting reality to face, but science is not going provide any long-term solutions to the threat of biological weapons. Heavy investment in biodefense might even have the opposite effect. Enduring solutions are to be found in diplomacy, international cooperation, and vigilance. These tools are not perfect; but they do promise access to suspect facilities, sharing of information, "peer pressure" among countries, and an improved ability to ensure that everyone complies with commitments to not develop or use biological weapons.
Citizens should ask questions about biodefense, and not accept simple answers. The biggest unasked question: What will a successful biotech war on bioterrorism require?
To get an answer, take a moment to ponder being immortal. Now think about biodefense. Both make an arrogant and impossible promise of human mastery over life and its variability.
Would Americans feel safe and secure with, say, 50% of us immune to some kinds of biological weapons? Or, resistance to 50% of biological weapons? No. A biological enemy cannot be deterred. In order to win, it must be overwhelmed. And in a world of infinite variability, that is an impossibility.
The term biodefense can be confusing. It is applied to a bundle of different approaches, some sound and others dubious. Unbundling the biodefense wrapper is important. Some biodefense activities are prudent public health measures, such as training medical staff and monitoring for unusual outbreaks of disease. Nobody would disagree with this kind of biodefense. Other approaches are technical, such as manufacturing protective suits and sensors to detect biological weapons, efforts that have their own particular difficulties (which are not addressed here).
Another set of biodefense activities are closer to those traditionally understood as military biodefense. These approaches are biomedical, such as developing medicines and agent-specific or "multivalent" (i.e. counteracting more than one variant of one agent) vaccines.
It is this latter set of approaches and, among them, those that suppose to defeat attack, that are the subject here. Biological warfare is the use of disease (generally disease-causing microbes and/or toxins they produce) to achieve political and military ends. Unusually lethal anthrax is a bioweapon many have heard about, but biological weapons neither begin or end with the handful of agents widely discussed in recent days.
Biological weapons are many. How many? The answer is uncomfortable to contemplate, but critical to understand. There are many more potential biological weapons than there are diseases that plague humans, animals, their food and industrial crops, and the biological systems that maintain our environment. All diseases are potential weapons.
In other words, biological weapons are infinite. Starting with nature's innate variability, and compounded by genetic engineering, biological weapons agent possibilities are literally endless. There are dozens, maybe hundreds of varieties of smallpox. A genetic cut and paste makes the difference between an E. coli strain that happily assists digestion and one that leaves people dead. Techniques such as mutagenesis and using antibiotic resistance genes can turn relatively or completely benign microbes into major killers.
Because biodefense projects that suppose to eliminate the threat of biological weapons work against an infinite world of potential enemies, in order to vanquish biological weapons, to be effective they must seek to utterly control the systems by which all life reproduces and grows. Otherwise, defenses are continually outflanked.
Put simply, those that promise victory - that meaning a technical elimination of biological weapons, or even a significant subset of them - aspire to the power of a deity. Without omniscience, stopping one threat only points to another, and another, and another, and another, and so on. It is painfully obvious that even the best, enormously funded scientific talent will never overcome biodiversity combined with a determined, sometimes suicidal, enemy.
It is disappointing that relatively few science professionals speak out about this. Even fewer companies do; but then there are profits to consider.
When somebody claims to have a technical solution to a bioweapons attack, it's important to think a step or two ahead. At present, there more purported solutions to anthrax than for malaria, a sad historical commentary on public health priorities; but would the US and its allies be significantly safer if anthrax were mastered?
Effective elimination of this threat to the general population is a decade and billions of dollars away at best. Right now, the US can barely produce enough vaccine to protect its own troops; but even then, the protection is limited and may not work against genetically engineered strains that are known to exist.
For the sake of argument, pretend for a moment that anthrax has disappeared as threat. There is one less bioweapons agent. Anthrax is particularly lethal; but is still only one of an infinite number of possibilities. Infinity minus one is not a real number. What happens next? The focus shifts to genetically-engineered strains of these agents which might outflank our defenses and then to other bioweapons agents, known for years, such as smallpox, botulinum toxin, plague, tularemia, Q fever, brucellosis, glanders, various types of encephalitis and hemorrhagic fevers, Marburg, and Ebola.
Many experts loathe to admit that using some of these diseases as a weapon requires little more than a petri dish, taking personal risks, and minor ingenuity. Using these agents to dramatic effect requires a bit more ingenuity; but pretending the dark science of biological weapons is impenetrable to all but a few superior minds is foolhardy. So, in our technical fix scenario, these diseases must be eradicated too.
Go a step further and, for a moment, be wildly optimistic. Pretend biotech has banished all the diseases mentioned so far, despite the fact that many would be more readily resolved as an issue of public health care and compassion than with the latest gene therapy. All the "typical" biowarfare bugs are gone, at least as a threat to US soldiers. Would the US then be safe from biological weapons? Not at all. Infinity minus twenty, and there are many left to go.
At this point, very difficult and potentially destabilizing political questions must be considered. Who foots the bill, and who gets the protection? Will the US provide these hypothetical vaccinations and treatments to everyone else, or reserve them for close allies and the rich? Biotech companies, beneficiaries of the contracts to develop these hypothetical cures, are very unlikely to give them away. Ask Africa about AIDS medicines. Should the US pay to vaccinate the world? In fact, the US is not even sure if it can afford to protect its own citizens. If the US is not prepared to treat the world, how will it be interpreted? As proof of US cold-heartedness, or even as a threat. The US would be marginally protected, but everyone else, especially the poor, would be vulnerable.
But we're only scratching the surface of possible bioweapons. Among human diseases, for a start there's influenza, which already spreads like wildfire and kills thousands annually. Add HIV, malaria, dengue, cholera, typhoid, yellow fever, West Nile, Chagas disease, Lyme disease, hepatitis, and river blindness. There are many more. Is the Pentagon and Secretary of Homeland Defense prepared to take these on too? Because they could be used as very damaging weapons. A biodefense technical fix will require mastering them, protecting people, and wherever possible eliminating the agent to keep it out of a tinker's hands.
There are other biological weapons. Crop diseases, livestock diseases, pathogens to attack food supplies, and genetically engineered microbes to destroy material, such as those created by the US Navy. They are no easier to combat and threaten humans by destroying our means to survive. Ask the British agriculture officials about their desperate and extraordinarily expensive battle against an apparently accidental outbreak of hoof and mouth disease.
We haven't really even mentioned genetic engineering. If a bioweaponeer's first course of action doesn't work, old diseases can be made to come back:
In security parlance, many of these items are classified as "risks" rather than "threats". Risks are things that might be possible, threats are things that we have good reason to believe could happen. For example, HIV is very deadly; but difficult to weaponize and nobody serious has threatened to do it. Hence it is a risk, not a threat. Threat assessment deals with matters at hand and, in effect, leaves future possibilities to worry about later, if they become more real. Differentiating between risks and threats is the starting point for many analysts. But the analysts are concerned about the immediacies of defense, not about prevention.
The threat assessment methodology for classifying priorities is quite different than, for example, the precautionary principle developed in biosafety. Unfortunately, threat assessment has deeply pervaded not just military, but diplomatic thinking about solutions to biological weapons. Its inherent short-sightedness has stymied the development of effective solutions. Many governments have substituted a short-term military priority-making approach for a methodology to create underlying conditions necessary to prevent the upsurge of new problems. By discounting problems that aren't right on the doorstep, threat assessment leads to half-baked notions of what can be done to promote security, such as the US walking away from the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention Verification Protocol, and investing heavily in the wrong kinds of biodefense.
Biotech's Gulf of Tonkin Resolution
Presently, the US Congress' biodefense pocketbook is wide open. There's no shortage of outstretched hands. Much of it is pursued by an industry whose public image is staked on the false hope of creating meaningful protection from biological attack. In the past week, almost every major US daily has run articles praising the experimental biodefense "miracle" or "magic" brewing just around the corner at a local university or biotech startup. Did the United States have such a huge and promising biotech defense industry before September 11th and nobody noticed? No. By global standards, our program is big; but it isn't promising and the professor or Chief Technology Officer around the corner is no more likely to save you from a biological attack than a tidal wave.
Through America's preoccupation with homeland biodefense, the biotech industry believes it has been granted a license to proceed into a profitable war with no possibility of producing peace and no durable long-term product but profit. Congress didn't exactly give biotech a Gulf of Tonkin Resolution; but sloppy media coverage and shameless opportunism are creating one.
DynCorp, a spooky US defense contractor best known for blasting Colombia with wide spectrum herbicides in the Drug War, is setting up a bioweapons vaccine business. It's partner is Porton International, a company which sprang forth from Porton Down, the UK's equivalent of Ft. Detrick, MD. Before 1969 Ft. Detrick was the US headquarters of biological weapons research. Now it houses important elements of our biodefense apparatus. DynCorp has its fingers in many pies and also advises the US Army and industry on compliance with biological and chemical weapons agreements.
Another major military contractor, Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) already has assets at Ft. Detrick through contracts with the military and the National Cancer Institute.
In Texas, Lynntech Inc. proffers organophosphorus hydrolase as part of its quest to, in the soothing words of a local newspaper, discover "a single enzyme that will neutralize all toxic agents." A pipe dream if one ever existed; but on September 11th the Texans got a call from a general at Ft. Detrick.
In Seattle, Corixa Corp. publicly complains that $3.5 million isn't enough for its experimental anthrax vaccine and wants more help from the government. Corixa's stock is up more than 50%. There are legions more.
The Vaccine Push
During the Gulf War, the US realized that it did not have the ability to vaccinate its troops (much less those of allies) against anthrax and other biological weapons possessed by Iraq. Entreaties to the pharmaceutical industry prompted a flood of antibiotics but little vaccine. Treating disease has always been more profitable than preventing it.
After further haggling, industry made clear it wasn't interested in manufacturing bioweapons vaccines without massive subsidies and relief from liability. The military effectively agreed, and SAIC drew up a plan for the government to invest about $3 billion in research and to build vaccine facility costing $370 million. At this government facility, companies will produce eight (8) vaccines against anthrax, smallpox, plague, tularemia, botulinum, "next generation" (read: genetically engineered) anthrax, ricin, and equine encephalitis. This $3 billion plus buys only eight, only to protect the US military and, by agreement, some soldiers from Canada and the UK. US civilians are out of luck, according to SAIC "Beyond the baseline operating scope of the [government-owned, contractor-operated] facility design." Foreign citizens aren't even an afterthought.
Avoiding the Spiral and Invoking Diplomacy
On September 4th, the New York Times revealed that US Central Intelligence Agency biodefense researchers had tested mock biological bombs and built a real bioweapons production facility in Nevada, activities completely indistinguishable from offensive biological warfare research. The US kept these activities secret, and did not divulge them in annual confidence building reports to the Bioweapons Convention.
The US is now pouring billions more into biodefense. In the current climate, it is difficult to believe that potential adversaries will not respond with their own investments. After all, the US itself has failed to comply with its arms control commitments. The situation could very easily spiral out of control.
The sooner the US understands the impossibility of effective biodefense, the sooner pressure will build for the Bush administration to come to its senses and advocate fast conclusion of the Verification Protocol to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention.