Wednesday, October 03, 2007

We have met the bioterrorism threat and it is us

Several years ago I had the privilege to spend a great deal of time studying the subject of bioterrorism in order to participate in rulemaking and the legislative processes on the subject after 9/11. During that time I became concerned (bordering on alarm) about the risk of accidents from releasing deadly and even incurable bioterror agents under the control of US researchers, whose numbers have grown rapidly with an expansion in federal funds. Now AP reports that:
American laboratories handling the world's deadliest germs and toxins have experienced more than 100 accidents and missing shipments since 2003, and the number is increasing as more labs do the work.

No one died, and regulators said the public was never at risk during these incidents. But the documented cases reflect poorly on procedures and oversight at high-security labs, some of which work with organisms and poisons that can cause illnesses with no cure

This risk has existed for some time, and it's growing. In 2003, after helping craft bioterror response to legislation during the 2003 78th Legislature, I was appointed on behalf of ACLU to Texas' Bioterrorism Preparedness Task Force.

Upon studying bioterror threats at some length, I became convinced that a graver risk existed from an accident among our own domestic "defense" programs rather than from Al Qaeda or some terrorist group. Perhaps the most concise statement of my view was laid out in this 2004 letter to a Texas Senate committee focused on bioterror threats, but more detailed (though unfinished, and only partially footnoted) analysis written in 2003. This last document was never published but shared widely among legislative and opinion leaders. I was actually always quite proud of this work and disappointed the public-safety solutions I proposed never gained traction in the homeland security or state health department.

Those interested in the topic should take a look at the linked historical documents, both written when I was in charge of homeland security issues for the ACLU of Texas. I came to believe that the problem identified in the AP story is a bigger threat than any terrorist-backed bioterror attack, Jack Bauer and 24 notwithstanding. And when a deadly pathogen with no cure is released in Houston or San Antonio or Galveston, it won't really matter who created it - just how many people die.

Remember the botched evacuation of Houston during Hurricane Rita? Imagine if the city were fleeing a major bioterror accident instead of a hurricane. A bioterror event would be a worst case scenario by comparison, and no sound emergency plans exist to manage an incident of significant magnitude - the cars stalled on the highway leaving Houston without gas two years ago proved that.

Nobody ever wanted to listen to those messages at the health department or the Governor's homeland security agency (which at the time ironically was headed by past-TYC conservator Jay Kimbrough). But I still think if the overall goal is public safety, reducing domestic experimentation with bioterror pathogens is the best way to reduce their availability to the bad guys and reduce the chance of public exposure.

For more on the subject: See the Sunshine Project's website.


Anonymous said...

Reminds me of that recent outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the UK, which they traced to a government laboratory studying the pathogen. Aren't they supposed to be the folks most aware of the dangers and most careful???

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"Aren't they supposed to be the folks most aware of the dangers and most careful???"

An under-considered aspect of the problem is that we've thrown billions at bioterror research, and it's drawn thousands of new people into the field who didn't work on it a few years ago because of the influx of federal grant money. So there are a lot of newbies in addition to the experienced folks (who themselves were always more casual with such things than most people would be comfortable with).

The other big problem is transport: Believe it or not, Fed Ex transports most bioterror pathogens, even for the US military. So there's risk all through transport where the scientists aren't in control of the samples.