Revamping bioterrorism thinking

In my piece with DarkSyde yesterday, I mentioned a bioterrorist attack with Salmonella that took place in Oregon in the 1980s. This is an organism that you've all certainly encountered (though hopefully didn't get sickened by), and it's certainly not one that's commonly thought of as a potential agent of bioterrorism. Well, the National Academy of Science says our current list of potential agents is seriously flawed.

US 'unaware' of emerging bioterror threats

The life sciences are developing so quickly that a watch list of dangerous pathogens and toxins is useless in fighting the threat of bioterrorism, says a new report from the US National Academy of Sciences.

The report, on "next generation" bioterrorism, was requested by the US government. It concludes that intelligence agencies are too focused on specific lists of bacteria and viruses, and are not aware of emerging threats.

Focusing on the list of about 60 "select agents", such as the smallpox virus and botulism toxin, might simply divert resources from newer and more dangerous threats, such as RNA interference, synthetic biology or nanotechnology.

Our report "pushes back against the monomaniacal focus on bacteria, against the idea that if you can write a list of bad bacteria and control them then you're okay," says Peter A Singer, a bioethicist at the University of Toronto, Canada, who was on the NAS report committee.

As examples, the report suggests it might soon be possible to engineer a virulent pathogen from scratch using DNA synthesis and that advances in gene therapy might make it possible to release an aerosol of a harmful gene that would be inhaled by victims.

The article goes on to discuss how we're screwing ourselves in the long run by being so secretive about research done on agents that are currently on that list, as well as making it so difficult for foreign nationals to come here and work on these types of agents. Again, this just highlights how pretty much everything this administration has done with regard to bioterrorism preparedness is wrong.

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I'm hesistant (very) to side w/ the Bush administration, and I'd very much like to read the report, but the idea that terrorists will be synthesizing viruses for bioterror attacks seems on it's face a bit farfetched. Why would anyone do that when they can collect some soil samples, do a few simple bacteriological procedures, and get any number of biowarfare agents? There are dozens of fairly straightforward routes to access here, so why go to all the trouble? The list may be imperfect (it may even be way off base, or skewed sharply toward other unrealistic threats), but the idea of a list of known select agents based on availability and ease of use seems like smart policy to me.

By Paul Orwin (not verified) on 04 Feb 2006 #permalink

Tara C. Smith is an Assistant Professor of Epidemiology

CUTE!

By Kevin from NYC (not verified) on 04 Feb 2006 #permalink

I don't think anyone is arguing that certian microbial agents should not be listed and controlled. A professor in my former gradaute depratment got a sizeable biodefense grant, and now people who work on the grant are subjected to an FBI background check and work in a locked, camera-monitered facility.

I think the concern arises when the government focuses all its research and biosecurity efforts to a few threats. A lot of scientists who study infectious diseases are concerned with the single-mindedness of the government's approach to biofenense research. The focus on select bioterror agents has the potential to take away from research on pathogens that are actually a health problem, as researchers re-writes their grant proposals to study bioterror agents; scientists follow the money. Furthermore, as the NAS study points out, focusing on a select list of agents could leave the country unprepared for bioterror attacks using emerging technologies.

I wrote about this last week in Complex Medium . There's also a link to the NAS study and a few blurbs from it.

I think the concern arises when the government focuses all its research and biosecurity efforts to a few threats.

Exactly. Paul, I don't know either how likely some of those scenarios are--though I'd suggest not very--but by focusing so narrowly on things like tularemia, anthrax, etc., we're missing a lot of ground. I was at the ASM Bioterrorism meeting a few years back, and Stanley Falkow was harping on this very issue back then.

Well, I'm not in the bioterrorism area (although Schlievert's lab has moved in that direction since I left), and I'm especially loathe to cross swords with Stan Falkow (as an aside and shameless name dropping, I had lunch with him once when I was a grad student; if he's reading this, he's a helluva guy!!). I think there is always room for an expansive view of the problem, but in the near term, the issue will almost certainly be "garden variety" (heh!) biowarfare agents like anthrax, tularemia; stuff that's relatively easy to get and process.

If I was to highlight an important point it would be:
"The focus on select bioterror agents has the potential to take away from research on pathogens that are actually a health problem, as researchers re-writes their grant proposals to study bioterror agents; scientists follow the money"

This is something that I remember people saying early on, and a point that is very valid. The reality of bioterrorism is that the focus should probably be on public health measures (i.e., vaccine or therapeutic production and distribution; surveillance). This is very serious business, but it doesn't deserve outlandish funding compared to basic research into disease.

By the way, is there any conceivable way that RNA interference could be more dangerous than botulism? That just says to me that the person who wrote that (the article, not the NAS report) has no idea what either of those things are.

By Paul Orwin (not verified) on 05 Feb 2006 #permalink

I don't know about the RNAi part. Not to my knowledge, but I've not kept up on that field as well as I should have in the last year or so.