Toward Biological Security

Courtesy Reuters


The anthrax attacks on the United States in the autumn of 2001, and the fear and confusion that followed, made clear that the country lacks a comprehensive strategy for biological security -- the protection of people and agriculture against disease threats, whether from biological weapons or natural outbreaks. Too often, thinking about biological security has been distorted by misplaced analogies to nuclear or chemical weapons. An effective strategy must leave these analogies largely behind and address the special challenges posed by biological threats.

A strategy for biological security must confront drug-resistant and emerging diseases -- more than 30 of which have entered the human population over the past quarter-century. There is no good analogue to this naturally occurring threat in the realm of nuclear or chemical weapons. Moreover, diseases may be targeted against livestock or crops as well as against human populations. And outbreaks of deadly, contagious, and long-incubating diseases such as smallpox have to be detected and stopped rapidly wherever in the world they occur. Fortunately, once formulated, a sound strategy for biological security will help sustain itself because many of its core provisions will benefit public health even apart from acts of bioterror.

In fact, many of the tools used to address natural disease threats will be needed to respond to an intentional attack. The U.S. response to the anthrax attacks has emphasized the importance of improving domestic defenses. These measures include stockpiling vaccines and antibiotics, as well as improving local and national disease surveillance and other public health tools. To be effective these domestic measures must be sustained for decades and keep pace with the biotechnology revolution. International steps -- such as improving surveillance for and response to outbreaks of infectious diseases and securing pathogen stocks worldwide -- are also crucial to an effective strategy. Yet most of these international measures have been ignored so far in the current focus on immediate domestic needs.

Part of the problem is the very vocabulary we use. Analysts and policymakers

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