So we successfully made it through the tenth anniversary of 9/11 without “anything coming in over the water, chemical, biological, radiological.”
Better safe than sorry? Perhaps, but the degree of over-preparation cost time and resources that aren’t as plentiful as before. There are continued questions as to the adequacy of our nation’s preparedness to biological terrorism, fueled on ever more by the latest Hollywood thriller, “Contagion,” where a new deadly, contagious virus that infects a billion people and kills million before the end of the movie.
There’s been a lot of conjecture as to how “real” this movie plot was, whether a virus today could cause a global pandemic of that scale. From scanning the news articles on the net, it seems that many public health officials are quite willing to suggest that this is a realistic concept, in as much as there are viruses that can be highly infectious, that there are viruses that jump species, and that human contact and sneezing can be a source of transmission from person to person.
However, they don’t seem to confirm the idea that a virus that has all of the worst possible characteristics could break out tomorrow and infect a billion people within a few months. As one example, the movie’s virus (MEV-1) had a 20 percent mortality rate; the so-called “Spanish flu” had a 2.5 percent mortality rate.
But hey, it’s just Hollywood, right? You need to move the plot along, and what could cause more stress than an airborne virus that is highly infectious, has a high mortality rate, and doesn’t burn out like other viruses?
What’s perhaps more despicable are the people who might take advantage of the public’s fear of biological diseases, like the authors of the “World at Risk” report:
“Hoping to capitalize on the movie, Talent and former Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., the chair of the WMD commission, plan to release a new report that reiterates the threat of biological attack and grades the nation on its preparations to withstand it. Previewing the report, the former senators said they worried especially about cuts in security spending, cuts felt already by states and localities that would be on the front lines of responding.
Talent has been warning former colleagues in Congress not to let down the nation’s guard. His message: The capacity to withstand attack is a form of deterrence because terrorists would choose only targets where they could inflict maximum damage.
Talent worries he’s not getting through. “On the Hill, they’re putting an enormous amount of energy into denying reality,” he said. “To a great extent, we’re just hoping it doesn’t happen.”
Graham, who headed the Intelligence Committee during an 18-year Senate career, said the WMD report was likely to reflect success in securing nuclear weapons and radioactive materials around the world.
“I don’t think we’ve made that progress on the biological side,” he said. “Some of the most powerful pathogens are available in nature. There are others that can be manufactured in the lab, and there are thousands of people around the world who know how to weaponize them.”
This article also features Dr. Tara O’Toole, director of DHS’s Science and Technology Directorate, lamenting the deep cuts in research that the House of Representatives is proposing.
“It’s really difficult before somebody’s had their heart attack to get them to think about their cholesterol or go on a diet,” said O’Toole, a physician. “It’s really difficult before we see what a genuine bioattack would be like to continuously focus on biodefense.”
Of course, one could make the same argument about preparing for a Texas-sized asteroid from impacting the Earth, preventing terrorists from taking control of a Russian submarine and nuking the United States, or responding to a band of disgruntled American soldiers who have stolen nerve agent-filled rockets and are holding a US city ransom.
There are estimates that the US government has spent up to $60 billion on biodefense efforts, depending on how you count the federal funding. That sounds like a lot of money, but as homeland security analyst Randall Larsen notes, “The question is whether it has been spent properly.”
I don’t question how the funds were spent as much as the lack of strategic thinking and unrealistic expectations of what the biodefense efforts should accomplish. The federal government is unwilling to fully fund Project BioWatch to populate every major city with biological sensors and to fully fund Project BioShield to develop vaccines and other countermeasures for every dangerous biological disease and potential emerging disease. So why are we attempting half measures today? There are just too many other health concerns out there, such as the annual influenza season, while medical care costs continue to soar.
The good news behind the “Contagion” story could be the boost to the reputation (and hopefully, the budget) of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), whose professionals were the real heroes of the film. It wasn’t an Army colonel from Fort Detrick (“Outbreak”), it wasn’t a single brilliant researcher in an isolated lab (“Legend”), and it wasn’t a spiritual old woman in a Nebraska farm (“The Stand”). People don’t generally become infected by contagious diseases without direct and fairly prolonged face-to-face contact. And the Army isn’t going to quarantine cities and shoot people who are streaming out of the “hot zones” in panic.
Along that line of thought, Very Serious People shouldn’t be using Hollywood films to promote fear and to generate more funds for bioterrorism efforts without offering a strategic plan, metrics to determine how well the money is spent, and without consideration of all the other challenges our nation has to face.
As Winston Churchill noted, “Gentlemen, we have run out of money. Now we have to think.”