Failing Grades From the WMD CommissionDespite the strong efforts already made to upgrade the nation’s counterterrorism capabilities, numerous authorities – including congressional commissions, governmental and non-governmental organizations, and private industry – have identified the need to further improve the nation’s biodefense strategies. The U.S. Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism – formed by Congress in 2004 to evaluate the U.S. government’s readiness for a terror attack – warned the House Committee on Homeland Security in 2010, in fact, that “The threat of bioweapons being used by terrorists or rogue states has continued to worsen.” The Commission, co-chaired by former U.S. Senators Daniel Robert Graham and James Matthes Talent, also issued a “Report Card” (on 26 January 2010) on the efforts made thus far to address several of its earlier (2008) recommendations. In that report, the Obama administration’s failure to “enhance the nation’s capabilities for rapid response to prevent biological attacks from inflicting mass casualties” received a failing grade (“F” – meaning that no action had been taken on this recommendation). For its inadequate oversight of high-containment laboratories, the administration received an almost failing “D+.” “We no longer have the luxury of a slow learning curve,” the Commission also warned, as yet another indication that the Obama administration is not addressing urgent threats, including bioterrorism. “Especially troubling,” the Commission said, “is the lack of priority given to the development of medical countermeasures – the vaccines and medicines that would be required to mitigate the consequences of an attack.” Despite the failing grades and missteps – of Republican as well as Democratic administrations – the U.S. biodefense efforts of the past decade have, if nothing else, led to a greater understanding of both the lack of preparedness and the actual biothreat itself. That understanding has not only spurred the development and placement of new detection technologies, but also expanded the provisions in place for effective countermeasures. Nonetheless, the enactment of additional legislation, some of it still pending, to implement other Commission recommendations is needed to further enhance the nation’s current biosecurity capabilities.
Smallpox Disasters – Still a Threat?Largely because of a worldwide smallpox vaccination campaign carried out by the World Health Organization (WHO), naturally occurring smallpox has been successfully eliminated. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), the last reported smallpox case occurred in Somalia in 1977, and the virus has not infected anyone within the United States since 1949. Nonetheless, and primarily because of recent security concerns in embattled nations such as Libya and Syria, the use of biological weapons against civilian populations has once more become a real and present danger to the national security of the United States (and, of course, other nations throughout the world). Currently, samples of the smallpox virus – an airborne virus that is extraordinarily contagious and extremely lethal – are now stored in only two laboratories, one in the United States and one in Russia, which are both closely guarded. Nonetheless, there are also some understandable concerns that a few other nations and/or organizations – including terrorist groups – might also have acquired samples of the virus at one time or another in the recent past. Moreover, even though naturally occurring smallpox seems to have been effectively eradicated, it might still be inexpensively replicated, both technologically and synthetically, and used as a terrorist weapon of choice. Making smallpox an even more attractive bioweapon is that the maturation period of the virus ranges from 7 to 17 days. A human carrier of the virus thus could travel to numerous countries around the world without exhibiting any warning signs, while possibly spreading what could lead to an international pandemic. Even if the overall likelihood of a bioterror attack remains relatively low, the historical record shows that any use of the smallpox virus as a bioweapon would become a major international concern. According to the CDC, the most common type of smallpox, variola major, had an approximately 30 percent death rate – and millions of other victims suffered major disfigurements. In the 20th century alone, smallpox killed an estimated 300 million people – more than the total number killed in all of the wars fought in all countries throughout the entire world during that century. Also, because there is no specific treatment for smallpox – beyond treating the visible signs and symptoms of the infection – the foremost concern is to stop the spread of the virus before it reaches epidemic proportions. In nations that do not possess the types or quantities of immunization to the virus that would be needed, stopping the spread of disease can be an even greater challenge.
Developing a National PlanSecuring and preparing the United States (and/or any other nation) to cope with the threat posed by bioterrorism requires that several additional actions are needed. The same WMD report that issued less than complimentary grades also recommended five steps the U.S. government itself should take to combat the threat of bioterrorism:
- Conduct a comprehensive review of the current domestic programs already in place to secure dangerous pathogens;
- Develop a national strategy for advancing the ability to conduct forensic analyses of bioterror attacks;
- Tighten government oversight of the private-sector as well as government laboratories that deal with dangerous pathogens;
- Promote a culture of security awareness among scientists; and
- Enhance the nation’s current rapid-response plans to prevent biological attacks from inflicting mass casualties.
Richard Schoeberl, Ph.D., has over 25 years of experience, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). He served in various positions throughout his career, ranging from a supervisory special agent at the FBI’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., to acting unit chief of the International Terrorism Operations Section at the NCTC. In addition to the FBI and NCTC, he is an author of numerous articles on terrorism and security and has served as a media contributor for Fox News, CNN, PBS, NPR, Al-Jazeera Television, Al Arabiva Television, and Al Hurra. He works with the international nonprofit organization Hope for Justice, combatting human trafficking, and additionally serves as a professor of Homeland Security at The University of Tennessee Southern. He also is an advisor to the Domestic Preparedness Journal.