Biopreparedness and the Hydra of Bioterrorism

There are many factors that make biological warfare by far the most frightening type of a terrorist attack, and perhaps even the most frightening threat spawned by Mother Nature herself. For that reason both the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Defense (DOD) have spent billions of dollars on biothreat defense since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 (and the anthrax incidents shortly thereafter). It would seem, therefore, a bit more than eight years later, that the United States would have reached a reasonably high state of biopreparedness by now. That is not the case, though. In fact, neither the United States itself, nor any other country in the world, can or should expect that it will ever reach such a state of readiness, if only because the parameters of bioterrorism are constantly shifting.

Some of the world’s greatest scientific advances in recent years have been in the area of biotechnology. Scientists have learned, for example, how to manipulate and modify a seemingly endless array of microorganisms, via recombinant DNA techniques to improve standards of living through advanced applications in medicine, agriculture, and industry.  However, the same technologies used to develop new therapies that end the threat of certain deadly diseases also can be used to create a new and ever growing “Hydra” of bioterrorism.

Ironically, advances in biotechnology almost automatically ensure not only the persistence but also the growth of bioterrorism threats. As humans build defense systems against such deadly pathogens as anthrax, smallpox, and botulinum, other pathogens are being just as quickly synthesized de novo that are not only more viral but also more resistant both to detection and to treatment. Like the multi-headed Hydra of Greek mythology, for each head that is removed, two more grow in its place. (In the end, of course, Hercules defeated the Hydra after finding out that only one of its heads was immortal – and he covered that for eternity.) Today, the best and perhaps only way to defeat the threat posed by bioterrorism is knowing how to develop and use the different types of defensive aids and techniques available to do so.

Prevention, Encouragement, Intelligence 

When the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism met in Washington, D.C., last month (on 9 October), the commission members focused much of their attention on redefining, and refining, the prevention of bioterrorism, believing it to be fundamentally important to national security that the United States bolster its capacity to respond rapidly and effectively to a biowarfare attack.

In addition to advocating that the United States maintain its guard – the first prerequisite for prevention – the members also encouraged the nation’s homeland-security community at large to make it increasingly difficult, anywhere in the world, for terrorists to obtain access to a broad spectrum of biowarfare agents, laboratory equipment, intelligence information, and – of perhaps the greatest importance – the funding needed to carry out their bioterror threats. 

One aspect of “keeping up the guard” is promoting greater coherence within the biopreparation community, an important and sometimes overlooked resource, especially through the use of rapid communications and information sharing in order to alert all response sectors of suspicious occurrences of infections. Proactive epidemiological awareness, combined with rapid notification – within the community and to the population at large – by public health providers can usually prevent most if not all of the deaths caused by a bioterrorism attack, because even delayed-presentation diseases can beentified and quickly tracked and countered.

Another biopreparedness resource available for use in the global war against bioterrorism is the U.S. work in preventing the development and use of biological weapons by other countries. The U.S. “prevention umbrella” covers, but is not limited to, the surveillance and intelligence work focused on preventing the acquisition of materials, equipment, and information related to the development of biological weaponry. It also covers the containment of select agents as well as: (a) the implementation of more effective personnel reliability programs; (b) improved laboratory security; and (c) the better and more rapid sharing of intelligence.  Microbial forensics is yet another rather new resource being used in the U.S. biopreparedness effort – an effort, not incidentally, championed by the White House Office of Science and Technology that will allow for improved forensic tracking of the dangerous microbes used by bioterrorists.

In retrospect, turning the tables on bioterrorism and becoming the Hydra – a Hydra of prevention — may perhaps be the best tactic for the United States to use in developing and expanding its biopreparedness capabilities.  In that way, no matter what approach is used by would-be bioterrorists, a multiple-front response will be ready to counter it.

diana hopkins
Diana Hopkins

Diana Hopkins is the creator of the consulting firm “Solutions for Standards.” She is a 12-year veteran of AOAC INTERNATIONAL and former senior director of AOAC Standards Development. Most of her work since the 2001 terrorist attacks has focused on standards development in the fields of homeland security and emergency management. In addition to being an advocate of ethics and quality in standards development, Hopkins is also a certified first responder and a recognized expert in technical administration, governance, and process development and improvement.



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