Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

February 14, 2012

The Never-Ending Story of BioScarity Concerns

Filed under: Biosecurity — by Alan Wolfe on February 14, 2012

There have been so many terms developed over the course of the last twenty years to describe the confluence of biotechnology, warfare, and terrorism. It used to be enough to call it “biological defense” against biological warfare agents. Then we had to worry about “bioterrorism,” since we’ve had a total of two actual bioterror cases in the United States over the past 30 years. So then we started talking about “biosecurity” concerns, which seemed pertinent due to the immense chicken and pig processing factories in the United States, where their owners had to worry about losing their livelihood due to a possible invasion of a foreign animal-transmitted virus. Because of all the DHHS and DHS grants, BL-2 and BL-3 laboratories started springing up across the nation, calling for concerns about “biosurety” procedures.  As Professor Barry Kellman observes, we need to be worried about “bioviolence,” don’t we?

So I want to invent a new word, too.

I think we need to be concerned about “BioScarity” tactics, a phenomena seen when uninformed journalists and political pundits deliberately try to scare the public through technical discussions about biological diseases and the possibility that terrorists might “harvest” one to use against the public.

Yes, we have to be concerned that terrorists are sending their minions with Petri dishes into the deepest parts of Africa for the sole purpose of capturing rare and exotic species of disease, because it is just so hard to make an impact on society if you can’t cause a mass extinction event. At least, that’s what I’ve gathered from Huffington Post reporter Lynne Peeples in her article,  “Bioterrorism Funding Withers As Death Germs Thrive in Labs, Nature.”

Wow. What an attention grabber.

It’s hard to consider how the U.S. government has spent (on average) more than five billion dollars each year since 2003 on this specific topic, which is more than the Department of Defense spends on protecting its service members from all military chemical and biological warfare agents (which is currently around $1.5 billion/yr).

And nothing should stop your wandering eyes more than the term “death germs” – it’s as if every one of the thousands of biological organisms being studied out there are just waiting to break out and cause a world-wide contagion. That is, unless you considered how the annual influenza bug kills less than one percent of those infected.

You know, details like that.

Peeples makes her case for the article’s title in one aspect, which is kind of hidden. She believes that state and local public health funds have “plummeted” since 9/11, and since they are the “first line of defense,” this is a Bad Thing.

I suppose that an economic recession, combined with budget decisions by federal and state agencies to reduce the amount of money coming into their coffers, and the more relevant threat of pandemic influenza as compared to the theoretical threat of bioterrorism, has had nothing to do with this trend.

But I digress.

I’m attacking the journalist who unwittingly became the pawns of the bioterror profiteers – those people most interested in ensuring that we, the public, remain terrified of the potential of something that hasn’t happened but twice in the last 30 years. Take this paragraph in the article:

This means a terrorist may need few tools, little training, minimal money and no published blueprint to harvest a superbug and then unleash it in food, water, air or via insect vectors such as fleas or mosquitos. “As a normal person, you can collect anthrax in Texas soil or ebola in Africa by hunting down a monkey,” says Ramon Flick, chief scientific officer at BioProtection Systems Corp., which develops anti-viral vaccines. “It’s so easy to get a potential bioterror agent in your hands.”

Yes, it really is so easy.

That explains all the failed attempts by disgruntled individuals and terrorist splinter groups to develop ricin from castor beans and all of the “white powder” alarms that occur in the thousands all over the world. It’s all because “it’s so easy to get a potential bioterror agent.”

And what would a contemporary article on “death germs” be without referencing the recent attempt by Dutch scientists to examine how avian flu might mutate to a transmissible virus that could impact humans?

She waffles on the issue – it’s just so hard to judge. On the one hand, the public health benefits of understanding how avian flu might mutate are important. On the other hand, George Koblentz of George Mason University notes, “we still shouldn’t be going around making new versions” of deadly viruses without fully considering the possible implications. Modern day life is just so complicated.

I honestly wonder about the quotes attributed to the “biosecurity experts” in this article, whether they are really that naïve to believe that more funding for public health and a global biosurveillance center will somehow allow us to avoid a “biological Chernobyl” caused either by Mother Nature or terrorists.

I don’t believe in any way that there were any intelligence indications of a “second event” after 9/11 that would involve biologics, as D.A. Henderson is quoted to say. If Ellen Gurksy believes that there is an “insidious erosion” of biodefense funding, then I kind of wonder about the continued federal funding for all of the public health and biodefense programs at DHHS, which haven’t decreased since 2003.  I think that if your mindset is like Scott Lillibridge, that we have to be “ready for anything,” then we’ll bankrupt the federal budget for threats that don’t exist yet, while ignoring all of the many other public health hazards that kill tens and hundreds of thousands of Americans every year.

I’ll just end this by noting, you can’t expect medical experts alone to advise us on how the U.S. government should protect the public from the potential threat of emerging infectious diseases and biological terrorism.

They’re really not good at developing realistic proposals that can be integrated into the practices and efforts of the larger homeland security enterprise. Their myopic focus on a singular threat without regard to threat source, funding constraints, regulations and authorities, doesn’t help us move forward.

We need a more objective and less sensationalistic view to address this real concern.


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Comment by Jim Garrow

February 14, 2012 @ 8:51 am

Let me preface this by admitting that a not insignificant portion of public health funding prompted and earmarked for biosecurity uses was poorly spent and may have been better allocated elsewhere–in much the same way as a not insignificant portion of the funds spent on all homeland security-focused activities after 9/11 was.

And now an apology for being combative in response to to an article that someone obviously put some time into on a site that has generally been a place for differing minded and specializing authors could argue with the purest intentions (but when funding gets cut, how the knives come out; ain’t austerity grand?).

I disagree with the thrust of this post and feel that it trivializes what I believe is the core benefit of the billions of dollars spent on public health in the last decade.

Some background on me: I work on the front lines of public health preparedness and core public health. I have been paid for the last five+ years with a bioterrorism grant.

I think that the author is right in saying that many folks have folks too much on the once-in-a-lifetime, low-incidence, high-risk situation. Programs like BioWatch, BioShield and BDS have dumped billions into preparing for those situations–to no quantifiable benefit to the nation. In these times, we should be questioning the need for these programs. Especially at a time when other parts of the public health infrastructure are being dismantled; especially those parts that actually save lives and reduce morbidity; especially core public health.

Take, as an example, those BSL 2 and 3 labs springing up around the country. Boondoggle? It looks like the author believes so. But those labs are forbidden from working on bugs like anthrax and smallpox and ricin. It is much more likely that they’ll be used to test TB sensitivities or PCR fingerprint salmonella or sub-type influenza. Real things that happen every day, each of them done to reduce the actual number of sick and dead people. These labs will be there in case one of those newly emerging infectious diseases pops up or someone does get the right mix of castor beans, but until then, they’ve got a full plate of hundreds of other diseases that are making people sick today.

The point of my argument is that much of public health (though, admittedly, not all) is dual-use. So those billions the author notes above? They didn’t just get used to protect you all from some dead disease. They got used to protect you from the disease currently sweeping through your neighborhood. And frankly, that’s the problem with the vast majority of homeland security programs and funding. They’re there for the big day and that’s it. Mobile command posts, level A suits, UAVs for police forces: in most cases, they’ll sit there and stand testament to our need to just spend the money. But if they can find a way to make that equipment useful /today/? Then I would argue that it’s money well-spent.

You know, now that I’ve worked through the problem out loud, I don’t completely disagree with the author. Perhaps we have spent too much on bioterrorism; maybe it would have been better if we just spent it on public health.

Comment by William R. Cumming

February 14, 2012 @ 10:35 am

Not being a quant I never quite know how to deal with low probability high consequence events. Yet experience of 1/2 century in EM activities tells me that those low probability event often do occur. Was the calculation wrong that they were low probablity. Perhaps the most famous risk assessment in US history was performed by Professor Rasmussen for the AEC/NRC at MIT. His study became the basis of WASH-1100. The probabilities derived have long been repudiated but not the consequences of a core melt accident. Bioagents have long been labeled the cheap terrorist weapon whether derived or deployed. What I do know is that finally after anthrax and other events I find that HHS and CDC are eating the lunch of the other regulatory agencies on various WMD issues, and certainly are proving for all time that the FEMA paradigm of money provided in ignorance is largely ineffective in protection, prevention, mitigiation, response, recovery or resilience. FEMA just turned out its 2012 report trumpeting its successes in the last year. But it never really quite gets into what it thinks are its failures. Over investment in a subsiding southern Louisiana for example. Or payment of repetitive flood insurance claims to the river rats who know better anyhow.
Some of course think I am extra hard on the lack of risk assessment in FEMA and DHS. I blame it on lack of quants and lack of experienced people in the disciplines that matter. A recent newsletter from an HHS region described the Health Physics profession. Odd that none in that job employed in DHS. Why? Or Seismology? Or Climatology? Etc. etc.

And so between DAVE and Alan’s remarks have to side with DAVE. STUFF happens. Increasing population density and increasing occupation of hazardous sites seems to be mankind’s future this century. Both are formulas for tragic outcomes in actual events. Be prepared and be resilient. And buy those N-95 masks now! Protect the herd.

Comment by Alan Wolfe

February 14, 2012 @ 2:43 pm

To Jim Garrow – I suspect we agree much more than we disagree. Public health is important, but I get really annoyed when I see people arguing that we need to get more money for public health because of bioterrorism concerns. Hogwash. Do it for the right reason. I can support BSL-2/3 labs but don’t fund them with bioterror money, make the case that they are required for public health and show the numbers of infections/deaths avoided. I do regret my slap at medical experts who are quietly doing good work in policy positions, but I will suggest that some high vis talking heads (like the ones in the article) are ruining your reputation.

To Bill, I will have to try to win you over more . I agree that low consequence events happen. The key then is to ensure the proper amount of planning and funding goes to high consequence events while allowing for some lower degree of readiness for low consequence events. “Dual Use” only gets you so far. When “stuff happens,” you want to make sure the right tool is used for the right threat by the right people. It’s a policy issue.

Comment by Jim Garrow

February 15, 2012 @ 7:45 am

Mr. Wolfe:

I suspect that you’re right, we do agree more than I saw. It’s a funny situation, when virtually unlimited federal funds are made available in a field, how many experts and doomsayers come out of the woodwork (I like to call them pop-up experts), each spelling the end via omission or commission–all for another suck at the teat. I tried to intimate that each field which is blessed by federal largesse falls into this trap with my swipe at homeland security. I think that the bioterror folks are so easily found these days because that funding is getting pulled and the braying has begun. I suspect our friends in homeland security will begin makin those same sounds in a few years.

Thanks for your respectful comments and thoughtful work,

Comment by William R. Cumming

February 15, 2012 @ 11:41 am

WE can never truly cover all contingencies including low probability events [although I often question the quants probabilistic risk analysis given the relatively short period of record for some human and natural hazards activity]. NRC for example while rejecting the Rasmussen report was forced politically to premise its offsite regulatory scheme–10- CFR Part 50—on the premise that a coremelt accident would occur.

So what to do as is always the question often in the face of limited funding, staffing, competence, knowledge?

I believe in establishing a planning preparedness basis that incorporates existing levels of staffing, funding, resource, capabilities, logistics systems and processes, and training, and then designing systems [and funding them]on a standby basis that allows surging, expansion, mobilization, mutual aid, other arrangements that allow that planning and preparedness base to baseline capability. Of course that planning and preparedness baseline must be disclosed in order that society and politics can determine whether adequate.

One example and perhaps best demonstrated by Urban Search and Rescue Teams but others exist. Perhaps given our federal system under some situations the FIRE SERVICE should be subject to federal mobilization, funding and deployment given that it is a national asset. In fact if you look at technical response capability the notion of First Responders and all disasters are local give way in catastrophic situations to an integrated system that can mobilize all national assets and resources. SEE the 1982 NSDD-47 for example. This system has been statutorily mandated since 1951 in one form or another.

In a book to be published this fall the love affair in the Bush 43 Administration for preparedness process rather than system is revealed in detail and I would argue that even PPD-8 is enthrallment with process not developed systems.

So much for resilience. And going back to the post itself it would be tough to separate public health issues from those of resilience and bioterrorism. IMO of course.

Comment by William R. Cumming

February 15, 2012 @ 11:45 am

Related to this post, in early May in DC the NSF is hosting an open session on science communication. May be of interest to those reading this blog generally or this post specifically.

Of course wrapped around Bioterrorism is Secrecy. Until 9/11/01 neither HHS or CDC or EPA had original classification authority. Now they have it at the SECRET level and above that can derivatively classify.

Another factor perhaps in the opaqueness of discussion of the issues, although DARK WINTER exercise still seems to me a milestone conducted in 2001 pre-9/11!

Comment by William R. Cumming

February 16, 2012 @ 7:23 am

I note that the TEAPARTY is sending out e-mails warning of lack of preparedness on bioterrorism and pandemic flu.

Comment by The Doomsayer

February 16, 2012 @ 8:34 pm

As one of the “pop up experts”

Comment by The Doomsayer

February 16, 2012 @ 8:42 pm

As one of the “pop-up experts” only time will tell the real story, however we are so unprepared….and have little respect for history and what it has portrayed as reality inherent in mankind’s dysfunctional behavior and generational hatred lending to the perspective of those of us who are doomsayers for all is witnessed before God and again, the veil of uncertainty and fraility prevail in the hearts and minds of far many more than you could believe as the economy continues to and the lack of leadership on both sides of the aisle.

Comment by Donald Quixote

May 20, 2014 @ 12:40 pm

This is a conversation provoking article that is either an over-reaction to an unlikely threat or a serious warning with a 09/10/01 like catastrophic result with our failure to connect the dots.


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