By Professor David Koplow
It’s bad enough when an important federal government program designed to deal with a pressing national security threat turns out to be mostly a waste of money; it’s worse when that program also turns out to distract people and agencies from the more serious and fruitful approaches to the problem; it’s worst of all if that program actually contributes to making the problem even worse than it otherwise would be. The current bioterrorism program, tragically, accomplishes all three of these
The United States is now marking the seventh anniversary of the mailed anthrax attacks that killed five people, infected 17 more, drove thousands to pursue prophylactic treatment, and genuinely frightened millions. In September and October 2001, anonymous letters addressed to various media organizations and two U.S. senators paralyzed the government and triggered a marathon investigation that has only now culminated in the FBI’s conclusion that Bruce Ivins, a previously unknown scientist at the Army’s biodefense laboratory at Fort Detrick, MD, was the sole malefactor.
But in the interval, the Bush Administration has also lavished billions of dollars on the much-heralded Project Bioshield – and the American people are no safer, and feel less secure, than we were before all the hysteria began. Resources have been thrown at assembling a massive inventory of smallpox vaccine (one of the most hazardous, but surely one of the least likely, biological threats) and at crafting a new, still not fully tested and reliable protection against anthrax.
But far too little has been done to address the genuine biological threats to Americans and to suffering people around the world – the quotidian scourges of AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, measles, and cholera – that not just “threaten” us in the abstract, but that actually kill and incapacitate millions of people annually. The most pressing public health threat to our national well-being might be the annual surge of ordinary influenza, but it has not benefited from the same sort of political anguish, emergency funding, and public attention that the national security entrepreneurs have discovered in the ever-looming fear of international bioterrorism.
In fact, the “ready, fire, aim” zeal has arguably made the bioterrorism threat even worse. It has signaled to our enemies where our worst national vulnerabilities lie; it has suggested to them the precise types of attacks that would most unnerve and “terrorize” our community. By intensifying the public’s anxieties about intentional disease threats, the Bush administration has highlighted this sector for hostile attention, perhaps encouraging the very sort of concerted attention we want to minimize.
Bioterrorism is a serious, important danger, one that deserves serious, focused attention. But empowering a bioterrorism-industrial complex, and fostering a needless climate of fear, paranoia, and helplessness cannot lead to fashioning reliable, long-term solutions. Rational policy requires a genuine, level-headed risk assessment, and a sustained, balanced approach, not a knee-jerk public relations drama.