Give a man a gun, and he is lethal to a one-mile radius. Teach him to engineer an indomitable virus, and he can demolish entire populations without ever blowing his cover.
That’s the old adage, right?
Bioterror anxiety resurfaced with the release of the Trump administration’s “Taxpayer First” budget, which presumably threatens national security against such attacks. An opinion article from The Hill showcases how:
|Governing Agency||Program||Mission||Budget Cut|
|Department of Health and Human Services||Centers for Disease Control and Prevention||Help communities quickly respond to and recover from public health emergencies||17%|
|Department of Homeland Security||National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center||Defend the public from acts of terrorism via bioforensics and preparedness planning.||Eliminated|
|Department of Health and Human Services||Hospital Preparedness Program||Improve medical surge capability across the nation||11%|
Note that the proposed budget cuts are jarringly steep on all fronts, receiving bipartisan criticism and little praise.
Donald Trump was a strong proponent of cranking up defenses against bioterrorism in 1999, going so far as to suggest his own course of action if he were president: “[Trump] believes antibiotics should be stockpiled in big cities and sensors should be developed to give early warning of biological devices. He even floated the idea of a new lottery game to finance a counter-terrorism spy network,” The Independent reported at the time.
Hardly a new concept, bioterrorism is the deliberate release of organic agents marked by intention of causing illness or death. An infamous occurrence of such happened just weeks after 9/11 when a lone terrorist mailed letters laced with anthrax spores to two U.S. Senators and several news outlets. While “Amerithrax” precedes my memory, ensuing chaos barred me from getting the mail for the next few years — mother’s orders. Biological weapons are particularly disturbing to us, I suppose, due to our lack of understanding and control in the matter. Earlier in 1984, the Rajneeshee commune contaminated ten Wasco County salad bars with salmonella, an act that is commonly cited as America’s first and largest bioterror attack. With knowledge of biotic agents ever-accruing coupled with advances in bioengineering, the sky is now the limit, and it is arguably a matter of time before the most deadly act of bioterrorism in American history.
Is bioterror anxiety warranted, then? According to Bill Gates, “All these advances in biology have made it far easier for a terrorist to recreate smallpox, which is a highly fatal pathogen, where there is essentially no immunity remaining at this point.” Gates spoke on the subject earlier this year at the Royal United Services Institute in London. “When you are thinking about things that could cause in excess of 10 million deaths, even something tragic like a nuclear weapons incident wouldn’t get to that level.”
But who is to say that the next pandemic is man-made versus a quirk of nature? Or that one is more concerning than the other? To offer a frame of reference, I will say the number of American lives lost to influenza per year greatly exceeds the number affected in many post-war headliners (e.g. Amerithrax, Rajneeshee, Zika). “The fact that a deadly global pandemic has not occurred in recent history shouldn’t be mistaken for evidence that a deadly pandemic will not occur in the future,” Gates asserts. The past does not predicate what is to come, indeed, and we should probably prepare for naturally-occurring pandemics and biological attacks alike. Epidemiologist Dr. Ali S. Khan recommends keeping a cool head all the while, suggesting that the boring stuff is actually what saves us when it comes to public health measures. His book The Next Pandemic just hit the shelves last month.
Of course, even the boring stuff will be difficult to sustain under the Taxpayer First budget as it stands.