Biological Threat Assessment: Is the Cure Worse Than the Disease?

Article excerpt

In the three years since the September 11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent mailings of anthrax bacterial spores, federal spending to protect the U.S. civilian population against biological terrorism has soared more than 18-fold. For the 2005 fiscal year, the Bush administration has requested about $7.6 billion for civilian biodefense, up from $414 million at the time of the 2001 attacks.1 Several federal agencies are involved in biodefense research and development (R&D), and the huge increase in funding from the National Institutes of Health for work on "select agents," or pathogens and toxins of bioterrorism concern, has attracted thousands of academic scientists.3

Of growing concern to U.S. biodefense officials is the possibility that rapid advances in genetic engineering and the study of pathogenesis (the molecular mechanisms by which microbes cause disease) could enable hostile states or terrorists to create "improved" biowarfare agents with greater lethality, environmental stability, difficulty of detection, and resistance to existing drugs and vaccines.4 (See ACT, July/August 2004.) It is known, for example, that the Soviet biological weapons program did extensive exploratory work on genetically engineered pathogens. The Bush administration's response to this concern has been to place a greater emphasis on "science-based threat assessment," which involves the laboratory development and study of offensive biological weapons agents in order to guide the development of countermeasures. This approach is highly problematic, however, because it could undermine the ban on offensive development enshrined in the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) and end up worsening the very dangers that the U.S. government seeks to reduce.

Biological Threat Assessment-Weighing the Risks

The Bush administration contends that science-based threat assessment is needed to shorten the time between the discovery of new bioterrorist threats, such as pathogens engineered to be resistant to multiple antibiotics, and the development of medical countermeasures, such as vaccines and therapeutic drugs. This rationale is flawed, however, for three reasons.

First, the administration's biodefense research agenda credits terrorists with having cutting-edge technological capabilities that they do not currently possess nor are likely to acquire anytime soon. Information in the public domain suggests that although some al Qaeda terrorists are pursuing biological weapons, these efforts are technically rudimentary and limited to standard agents such as the anthrax bacterium and ricin, a widely available plant toxin. Assistance from a country with an advanced biological weapons program may be theoretically possible, but no state has ever transferred weaponized agents to terrorists, and the risks of retaliation and loss of control make this scenario unlikely. Although more sophisticated bioterrorist threats may emerge someday from the application of modern biotechnology, they are unlikely to materialize for several years.

Second, prospective threat-assessment studies involving the creation of hypothetical pathogens are of limited value because of the difficulty of correctly predicting technological innovations by states or terrorist organizations. Distortions such as "mirror-imaging"-the belief that an adversary would approach a technical problem in the same way as the person doing the analysis-make such efforts a deeply flawed basis for the development of effective countermeasurcs.

Third, by blurring the already hazy line between offensive and defensive biological R&O, science-based threat assessment raises suspicions about U.S. compliance with the HWC and fosters a "biological security dilemma" that could lead to a new biological arms race. At the same time, the novel pathogens and related know-how generated by threat-assessment work could be stolen or diverted for malicious purposes, exacerbating the threat of bioterrorism. …