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By Edward Hammod
Contrary to what the US public is being told, biological defense does not offer lasting protection against the threat of biological weapons. That is an impossible task.
It's a puzzling reality to face, but science will not provide long-term solutions to the bioweapons threat. Worse still, large investments in biological defense could have the opposite effect. Durable solutions can be found in diplomacy, international cooperation and surveillance. These tools are not perfect, however they promise access to suspicious facilities, information exchange, "peer pressure" between countries and greater ability to ensure that each is meeting its obligations not to develop or use biological weapons. Citizens should formulate questions about biological defense, and not accepting simple answers. The biggest question yet to be asked: What does biotechnology need to wage a successful war on terror?
To get an answer, take a moment to reflect on being immortal. Now think of biological defense. Together they result in an impossible and arrogant promise of human dominion over life and its variables.
Would Americans feel safe if, say 50% of the population is immune to some types of biological weapons? Or with a 50% resistance to biological weapons? No. A biological enemy cannot be stopped. To beat him, you have to be crushing him. And in a world of infinite variability, that is impossible.
The term biological defense can be misleading. It applies to a bunch of different approaches, some reasonable, some dubious. It is important to remove the cover of the biological defense. Some biological defense activities are prudent public health measures, such as training for medical personnel and monitoring for unusual disease outbreaks. No one could disagree with that kind of biological defense. Other approaches are technical, such as the production of protective suits and sensors to detect biological weapons. These efforts have their own difficulties (which we do not address here).
Another set of biological defense activities are assimilated to those traditionally classified as military biological defense. These approaches are biomedical, such as the development of specific drugs for an agent, or multivalent vaccines (which protect against more than one variant of the agent).
The last set of approaches and, among them, those that suppose to defeat the attack constitute the object of the present analysis. Biological warfare is the use of disease (usually microbes or germ-derived toxins) to achieve political and military ends. The extraordinarily lethal anthrax is the biological weapon many have heard about, yet biological weapons do not begin or end with the handful of agents frequently discussed in recent days.
Biological weapons are many. How many? The answer is uncomfortable to contemplate, but critical to understand. There are more potential biological weapons than diseases that affect humans, animals, industrial or food crops and the biological systems that support our environment. All diseases are potential biological weapons.
In other words, biological weapons are endless. Beginning with the intrinsic variability of nature, increased by genetic engineering, the possibilities for biological weapons agents are literally limitless. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of varieties of smallpox. A genetic "cut and paste" differentiates a strain of E. coli that happily aids in digestion and another that kills people. Techniques such as mutagenesis and the use of antibiotic-resistant genes can turn completely benign microbes into deadly microbes.
Biological defense projects aimed at eliminating the threat of biological weapons work against an infinite world of potential enemies. To be effective, therefore, they must seek to effectively control all the systems through which all life forms grow and reproduce. Otherwise, the defenses would be completely flanked.
To put it simply, those who promise victory - this is a technical elimination of biological weapons or even a significant subset of them - aspire to the power of a god. Without omnipotence, countering one threat only points to another, and another, and another, and another, and another, and so on. It is painfully obvious that even the best, hugely funded scientific talent can never defeat biodiversity combined with a determined, sometimes suicidal, enemy. It is disappointing that relatively few scientists speak publicly about this matter. Far fewer companies, but in that case, there are earnings to take into account.
When someone claims to have the technical solution to a bioweapons attack, it is important to think a step or two ahead. Today, there are more alleged solutions for anthrax than for malaria, a sad historical comment on public health priorities, but would the United States and its allies be safer if anthrax were conquered?
Effective elimination of this threat to the general population is a decade and trillions of dollars away. Right now, the US can barely produce enough vaccines to protect its own troops, but even then, protection is limited and may not work for genetically modified strains known to exist.
For the sake of argument, pretend for a moment that the anthrax has disappeared as a threat. There is one less biological warfare agent.
Anthrax is particularly deadly, but it is still just one of an infinite number of possibilities. Infinity minus one is not a real number. What happens next? Attention shifts to genetically modified strains of agents that may flank our defenses and then to other biological warfare agents known years ago, such as smallpox, botulinum toxin, tularemia, Q fever, brucellosis, glanders, plague, various types of encephalitis and hemorrhagic fever, marburg and ebola.
Many experts are reluctant to admit that using some of these agents as weapons requires more than a petri dish, taking personal risks, and a little ingenuity. Using those agents to dramatic effect takes a bit more ingenuity, but it's foolish to assume that the dark science of bioweapons is impenetrable to anyone but a few superior minds. Therefore, in our technical solution scenario, those diseases must also be eradicated.
Go one step further and be wildly optimistic for a moment. Pretend that biotechnology has banished all the diseases mentioned so far (although the solution of many of them is closer if they are treated as a matter of public health and compassion, than with the latest gene therapy). All the typical biological warfare germs have disappeared, at least as a threat to US soldiers. Would the US then be safe from biological weapons? Not at all. Infinite minus twenty, and many are ahead. At this point, very difficult and potentially destabilizing political issues must be considered. Who pays the bill and who receives protection? Would the US provide these hypothetical vaccines and treatments to everyone, or would it reserve them for its close allies and the wealthy? Most likely, biotech companies won't give them away. Ask Africa about AIDS remedies. Should the US pay for vaccination around the world? In fact, the US is not sure that it has the ability to protect its own citizens. If the US is not prepared to provide treatment to the world, how would it be interpreted? As a sign of the insensitivity of the United States, or even as a threat. The US would be marginally protected, but the rest of the world, especially the poor, would be vulnerable.
But we are just scratching the surface of possible biological weapons. Among human diseases, to begin with, is influenza, which has already spread like fire and killed thousands of people year after year. Add HIV, malaria, dengue, cholera, typhus, yellow fever, West Nile, Chagas disease, Lyme disease, hepatitis, and onchocerciasis. There are many more. Are the Pentagon and the Secretary of Defense of the National Territory prepared to combat these diseases as well? Because all of them could be used as very harmful weapons. A technical biological defense solution requires mastering all of them, protecting the population and, when possible, eliminating the agent to keep it out of the reach of mischievous hands.
There are other biological weapons. Diseases of crops, livestock, pathogens that attack food, genetically modified microbes that destroy materials such as those created by the US Army. These are equally difficult to combat and threaten humans because they destroy the means of survival. Ask British agriculture officials about their desperate and extremely costly battle against a seemingly accidental outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease - we haven't even mentioned genetic engineering. If the bioweapons warrior's first attempt doesn't work, old diseases can be brought back: Measles, mumps, rubella, or even polio can be induced to elude vaccines.
A genetic cut and paste differentiates a benign bacteria from one that kills. Last year, scientists published a genetic diagram showing how a relatively weak disease, for example chickenpox or herpes, can be transformed into lethal biological weapons. diseases show different symptoms; make them more aggressive; resistant to antibiotics, or invisible to detection systems.
In security jargon, many of these items are classified as "risks" rather than "threats." Risks are those things that are possible, threats that we have good reason to believe can happen. For example, HIV is very deadly, but difficult to weaponize and no serious person has threatened to do so. Therefore, there is a risk, but not a threat. Threat assessment addresses nearby issues and effectively leaves future possibilities to be addressed later, for when they become more real. The distinction between risk and threat is the starting point for many analysts. But analysts are concerned with the immediacy of defense, not prevention. The threat assessment methodology for ranking priorities is very different from, for example, the precautionary principle developed in biosecurity. Unfortunately, threat assessment has profoundly dominated not just military but diplomatic thinking about biological weapons solutions. The inherent myopia of this methodology has hampered the development of effective solutions. Many governments have substituted a short-term prioritization approach for a methodology aimed at creating the underlying conditions necessary to prevent the emergence of new problems. By ruling out those problems that are not around the corner, threat assessment leads to ill-conceived notions about what can be done to promote security, such as the US withdrawal from the Verification Protocol to the Biological Weapons Convention, and investing copiously into the wrong types of biological defense.
Gulf of Tonkin Biotechnology Resolution
Currently, the wallet of the US Congress is completely open. There is no shortage of outstretched hands. Most of the appeals are being pursued by an industry that has played its public image in the false hope of creating meaningful protection against a biological attack. Last week, nearly every major US newspaper ran articles praising experimental biological defense "miracles" or "magic" potions right around the corner, at a local university or biotech startup. Did the US have such a large and promising biological defense industry before 9/11 and nobody noticed? No. Overall, our program is large, but it is not promising, and the chances that the professor or Chief Technology Officer around the corner will protect us against a biological attack are no greater than that he will protect us against a tsunami.
Thanks to the concern of the US regarding the protection of the national territory, the biotechnology industry believes that it has been granted a license to continue a lucrative war, without the possibility of producing peace and without long-term results, except for profits. Congress didn't exactly give the biotech industry carte blanche for a Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, but light media coverage and unabashed opportunism are creating one.
Dyncorp, a terrifying military contractor best known for flooding Colombia with broad spectrum herbicides in the War on Drugs, is setting up a bioweapons vaccine business His partner is Porton International, a company that originated in Port Down, the British equivalent of Ft. Detrick, Maryland. Until 1969, Ft. Detrick was the main headquarters of the US biological warfare program. It currently houses important elements of our biological defense structure. Dyncorp has its fingers in a lot of cakes and also advises the US Army and industry on how to comply with international conventions on biological and chemical weapons.
Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), another major military contractor, already has assets in Ft. Detrick through contracts with the military and the National Cancer Institute.In Texas, Lynntech Inc offers organophosphate hydrolases as part of its search to discover, using the words of a local newspaper, "a single enzyme that will neutralize all toxic agents." A cake in the sky, if there ever was one, but on September 11 a general from Ft. Detrick telephoned Texans .
In Seattle, Corixa Corp publicly complains that $ 3.5 million is not enough to test its experimental anthrax vaccine and wants the government to give more help. Corixa shares rose more than 50%. And there are so many more.
The push for the vaccine
During the Persian Gulf War, the US realized that it did not have the capacity to vaccinate its troops (much less those of its allies) against anthrax and other biological weapons that Iraq possessed. Appeals to the pharmaceutical industry produced a flood of antibiotics, but few vaccines. Treating the disease has always been a better business than preventing it.
After more haggling, the industry made it clear that it was not interested in producing bioweapon vaccines unless it was granted massive subsidies and a waiver of liability for possible damages. The military agreed and SAIC devised a plan for the government to invest about $ 3 billion in research and build a plant that cost $ 370 million. At this government facility, the companies will produce eight (8) vaccines against anthrax, smallpox, plague, tularemia, glanders, next generation anthrax (read genetically modified), ricin toxin and equine encephalitis.
Those more than $ 3 billion buy only eight and protect only the US military and, by agreement, some soldiers from Canada and the United Kingdom. Bad luck for the US civilian population, which SAIC says is "outside the scope of the plant's design baseline operations (government-owned, contractor-operated)." It has not even occurred to them to think of foreign citizens.
Avoid the Spiral and Summon Diplomacy
On September 4, the New York Times revealed that Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) investigators had tested a simulated biological bomb and built a real biological weapons production plant in Nevada, activities that are no different from the offensive investigation in biological weapons. The US kept these activities secret and did not disclose them in its annual reports to the Biological Weapons Convention, ignoring the confidence-building mechanism established by the convention. Now the United States is pouring more billions into biological defense. In the current climate, it is hard to believe that potential adversaries will not respond with similar investments. After all, it is the United States that has failed to meet its gun control obligations. The situation could easily spiral out of control.
As soon as the United States understands the impossibility of an effective biological defense, the pressure will immediately mount on the Bush administration to return to its senses and promote the speedy conclusion of the Verification Protocol to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention.
October 3, 2001.
* The author is director of the Sunshine Project USA, an NGO that works for the prevention of the development and use of biological weapons.