- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 30, 2009

One year ago, Bruce E. Ivins, the purported perpetrator of the anthrax mailings of October 2001, died. Mr. Ivins was a senior biodefense researcher for the U.S. Army. Assuming the FBI is correct that Mr. Ivins acted alone in the production and distribution of the anthrax that infected 22, killed five and terrorized the nation, this is an appropriate time to review five important lessons from this incident.

1. Bioterrorism is not beyond the reach of non-state actors such as al Qaeda or lone-wolf domestic or international terrorists. Some have wrongly assumed that Mr. Ivins was capable of producing a weaponized version of a common animal disease only because he had access to sophisticated equipment at the Army lab. The equipment he supposedly used can be found in most state-of-the-art laboratories or purchased on various Web sites for considerably less than the cost of a used minivan, and it is available all over the world.

2. Deadly pathogens are widely accessible. Mr. Ivins’ easy access to a deadly pathogen may have made it easier to obtain the starter culture, but virtually all potential bioterrorism pathogens exist in sick people, animals and in the environment all over the world. Isolating anthrax, plague, tularemia and other deadly pathogens may not be easy for an amateur, but doctors, scientists and lab technicians do this every day as they treat patients or conduct research in human and veterinary medicine.

3. It could have been much worse. If the perpetrator had selected a different method to disseminate the bioweapon — release of a small amount of anthrax through the ventilation system in an airport, subway station or indoor sports arena — there would have been many more casualties. In addition, if he had spent a few weeks or months (not days) producing dry powder, the results would have been far more disastrous. Fortunately, according to authorities, he chose one of the least lethal scenarios — very small amounts of anthrax in a few envelopes.

4. Cleanup is an important part of biodefense. The one overlooked, underresearched and underfunded aspect of biodefense is environmental cleanup. More than $300 million was spent cleaning buildings from just a fraction of a gram of anthrax spores that had seeped out of the letters. Without major improvements in remediation, a subway system would require billions to clean and likely would remain closed for months, if not years. Imagine New York or the District without a subway.

5. Preventing bioterrorism is far different from preventing nuclear terrorism. Preventing nuclear terrorism is actually quite simple — not easy, but simple. If we do not allow terrorists to obtain plutonium or highly enriched uranium, they will not be able to make a nuclear weapon. It is far beyond the technical and financial capabilities of any terrorist organization to enrich uranium or produce plutonium — such organizations can only buy it or steal it. Therefore, the appropriate strategy is to locate, lock down and eliminate loose nuclear materials with programs such as the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program and the Proliferation Security Initiative. Unfortunately, the same strategy does not work against the biothreat.

The proper biodefense strategy requires three elements. First, it must include continued support and investment in international treaties, such as the Biological Weapons Convention and U.N. Resolution 1540. Then it requires that U.S. labs are safe and secure and that personnel who work in them are trustworthy. However, as a recently released Defense Science Board report asserted, “A determined adversary cannot be prevented from obtaining very dangerous materials for nefarious purposes. … The nation needs to recognize this reality and be prepared to mitigate the effects of a biological attack. Today, we as a nation are not prepared.”

Therefore, the third element in biodefense is to prevent an act of bioterrorism from becoming a bio-Hurricane Katrina. By developing the capability to produce vaccines and therapeutics rapidly and less expensively, we can use technology to remove bioweapons from the category of weapons of mass destruction. That should be America’s long-term goal for biodefense, but we can never reach it if we do not make the proper investments today.

Congress must provide sufficient funding for two of America’s most important biodefense initiatives, both in the Department of Health and Human Services. One is the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA, which develops an integrated, systematic approach to the development and purchase of the necessary vaccines, drugs, therapies and diagnostic tools for public-health medical emergencies. The other is Project BioShield, which funds medical countermeasures against biological, chemical, radiological and nuclear agents.

Both programs face serious funding challenges in Congress.

There are many priorities in the budget battle under way on Capitol Hill. However, congressional leaders must consider the lessons of anthrax as they make difficult choices. Furthermore, they must understand that these biodefense programs are “no-regret investments.” Building defenses against man-made bioattacks will also provide protection against the most feared bioterrorist of all: Mother Nature, producer of H1N1, SARS and smallpox.

Former Sens. Bob Graham, Florida Democrat, and Jim Talent, Missouri Republican, are the chairman and vice chairman of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism.

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