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.