Turned up to eleven: Fair and Balanced

Wednesday, April 17, 2002

Finally, ASM News, the monthly newsmagazine of the American Society for Microbiology, has published a very interesting article by C.J. Peters, well-known "virus hunter" who was on the front lines of the Ebola virus fight in Africa, and the outbreak in a Reston, Virginia monkey colony in 1989. If you haven't read The Hot Zone, prepare to be horrified, fascinated, and awed by the story of these men who faced down an incredibly dangerous virus, with, as Mr. Spock would say, "Stone knives and bearskins". Anyway, Dr. Peters has written a very interesting article about bioterror, which, unfortunately, is not available for public consumption. He has great basic information about a variety of dangerous viruses, and practical advice on how to prepare for/avoid a bioterror attack. Here is an excerpt, relevant to the microbiology community's responsibility;

Unfortunately, it is virtually impossible to prevent access of terrorists to these viral agents, most of which are widely available in nature. Generally, anyone with the resources and knowledge to prepare large quantities of such a virus and successfully aerosolize it will also be able to obtain the virus from nature. We have to be careful to make the agents readily available to legitimate researchers, or we will not be prepared to deal with the medical consequences of their use as terrorist weapons. The exceptions are agents such as smallpox, Ebola, and Marburg viruses, which are difficult to obtain from nature and too dangerous to study except in specially designed facilities.

We also are confronting difficult decisions when it comes to the flow of technical knowledge about these viral pathogens. Obviously, specific information describing how to manufacture and disseminate the agents should be controlled as much as possible, although much of this information appears to be widely known. Yet, we also need to learn more about aerosols, their properties, and the behavior of specific infectious agents within aerosols without making it easier for terrorists to use viruses as weapons. More troubling will be how we deal with discoveries that tell us how virulence is controlled and how virulence may be enhanced.

Those working within intelligence and law enforcement agencies play a critical role in preventing terrorist attacks and in telling us about the risks that we face from weaponized biological agents. Unfortunately, even when intelligence agencies identify specific risks, important information may not immediately be dispatched to inform scientists and others who work in preventive medicine and related areas who are among those best trained to counter those threats.

Should there be such an attack, public health experts will be among those in the vanguard of the response. They will need access to vaccines, particularly if the attack agent is the smallpox virus. In terms of protecting the general population, the likelihood that many individuals will be vaccinated before an attack occurs seems rather low. For one thing, the adverse effects of using the smallpox (or any other) vaccine must be carefully weighed against the likelihood that there will be an attack with that agent—an assessment that is pivotal before subjecting the population to a mass vaccination campaign that inevitably will yield some adverse outcomes. Meanwhile, the supplies of two other vaccines that would likely be helpful in protecting against bioterrorist attacks are not sufficient to protect very many people. The yellow fever vaccine is licensed and affords good protection, while the vaccine that can protect humans against Argentine hemorrhagic fever is widely used in Argentina, but is not licensed in the United States.

I think he is a little too blithe in his suggestion about controlling information about bioweaponization; this information is already essentially publicly available, with the exception of some very technical details that could probably be puzzled out by an enterprising wacko/rogue state. A better idea is to monitor and control access to the materials necessary. The bacterium and/or virus may be available in nature, but the aerosol delivery devices, and milling and coating devices necessary are not, and suspicious purchases, say by individuals not affiliated with known companies or institutions of higher learning, should be flagged. The manpower required for serious monitoring will be expensive, but necessary, in my view. People working with dangerous pathogens are used to substantial oversight, and will not object, I think. It is important, however, that the flow of information within the scientific community, and to the public at large, be impeded as little as possible out of security concerns.

I intend to e-mail the secretary of ASM, asking that they make this article available as a public service.