GENEWATCH
 
BOOK REVIEW: BREEDING BIO INSECURITY AND GERMS GONE WILD
By Andrew D. Thibedeau
 


Breeding Bio Insecurity1 by Lynn C. Klotz and Edward J. Sylvester and Germs Gone Wild2 by Kenneth King cover substantially identical material and make substantially identical arguments: there is a gross overestimation of the threat of foreign bioterrorism, and the resulting proliferation of domestic research facilities housing the world's deadliest pathogens represents a far graver risk than the one it seeks to combat.

Existential threats from dangerous biological agents are nothing new, however.  While laying siege to the Italian trading outpost at Caffa in 1347, the Mongol attackers "began to die in large numbers from an unknown but incredibly virulent disease."  Forced to retreat, the story goes that "before the Mongols departed, they catapulted the bodies of victims into the city."  Sickened by the disease, the Italian traders returned to Europe, introducing the bubonic plague to that continent.3 During the 16th Century, Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro "purposely tried to spread smallpox among the native Incas by distributing blankets used by people with the skin lesions of the disease." Centuries later, during the French and Indian War, "[t]he same strategy was used in an attempt to spread smallpox among Native Americans." Both the British and the American colonists "purposely gave gifts of contagion-laden blankets to Indians allied with the French."4

"Biodefense" is the State's response to these kinds of biological threats, and is generally defined as "the development of medical countermeasures and diagnostics for infectious agents and biological toxins that have been identified as potential threats on the battlefield."5  What's more, biodefense is not cheap.  There are reasons that national biodefense budgets usually run in the billions: turning even naturally dangerous pathogens into effective biological weapons-"weaponizing" them-is an extremely difficult business. "Offensive, including terrorist, use of biological agents presents major technical problems . . . [t]hat is why the Soviet Union, United States, United Kingdom and others needed to spend vast sums for decades in order to research and develop biological weapons."6 Both Breeding Bio Insecurity and Germs Gone Wild observe that the biodefense industry-and correspondingly the public imagination-nevertheless focus on a few, particularly deadly pathogens as potential bioterror agents, namely: anthrax, smallpox, plague, ricin, botulinum, tularemia, and hemorrhagic fever viruses like Ebola, Marburg, and Lassa.  Despite their deadly reputations, however, none of these disease agents make for very effective bioterrorist weapons.

Anthrax infection can be cured with aggressive antibiotics, even after symptoms have manifested. Moreover, Anthrax is very difficult to manufacture in large quantities and aerosolize, both necessary for it to be used as a bioweapon. Although extremely dangerous, in developed countries a smallpox outbreak could be averted with a sufficient stockpile of vaccine, given the warning of early cases.  Smallpox is also a particularly unlikely choice of bioweapon for Islamic terrorists. The Islamic world is substantially more vulnerable to the disease because of its young (and thus unvaccinated) population, crowded living conditions, absence or extreme scarcity of vaccine, and inadequate healthcare facilities.  In the case of plague, the images of horror conjured by its name notwithstanding, even in its most deadly form-pneumonic infection with the bacterium Y. pestis-it can be cured with common antibiotics. Conjointly, Y. pestis is a highly fragile organism and is thus extremely difficult to weaponize.

Both ricin and botulinum are proteins, which mean they are large molecules that are difficult to stabilize-a necessity in order to weaponize them.  Tularemia-otherwise known as rabbit fever-is a poor choice as a bioweapon because of its low mortality rate (about one in a hundred) and the fact that it is not contagious.  Finally, in spite of their gruesome symptoms, hemorrhagic fever viruses like Ebola, Marburg, and Lassa are not very contagious. Even in Africa these diseases are not a serious public health concern; outbreaks are small, claiming perhaps two dozen victims at most.  What's more, it is unclear whether it is possible to weaponize them at all. Even assuming that this were possible, the level of technology required would limit their development to only the most advanced nation states.

As Klotz, Sylvester, and King point out, these considerations do not eliminate the risk that these pathogens might be used in a bioterror attack against the U.S. However, they do call into question the likelihood and impact of such an attack.  "Neither we nor anyone else can say [bioterror attacks] are impossible," Klotz and Sylvester remark. But for the reasons outlined above, they do argue that "massive assault capabilities from small numbers of nonstate players ... are quite implausible."7 Moreover, Klotz and Sylvester remind us, "[w]e must also balance our biosecurity spending and actions between the ever-present threats to public health-AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, antibiotic-resistant infections, [and] emerging flu strains."8 As a result of the anthrax letters of 2001, the only actual bioterror attack against the U.S.-now known to have been perpetrated by a scientist working for the U.S. government-five people died. In comparison, in the U.S. in 2006, 56,326 people died of influenza and pneumonia, 34,234 died of septicemia, 12,644 died of HIV-related infection, 7,250 died of hepatitis, 5,897 died of "unspecified" infectious and parasitic diseases, and 2,556 of malnutrition.9

This begs the question why the U.S. government-not including the military-spent nearly $55 billion dollars between 2001 and 2010 researching anthrax, smallpox, plague, ricin, botulinum, tularemia, and hemorrhagic fever viruses.10  Klotz and Sylvester argue that rather than focusing on public policy "that build[s] protection against genuine public health threats," the U.S. has instead favored policies "that use fear and alarmist tactics to lead away from biosecurity while claiming to protect."11  Backed by $55 billion, U.S. government policy has caused a "massive expansion of high-biosecurity labs and has encouraged universities and private sources to build them."12  Both Breeding Bio Insecurity and Germs Gone Wild make the ultimate argument that this outcome has made the U.S. less safe.  "Our bloated, largely secret biodefense program increases the risk of accidents and theft by terrorists," Klotz and Sylvester warn, "and its lack of transparency may be inadvertently fueling an international arms race in bioweapons."13

While Breeding Bio Insecurity and Germs Gone Wild cover the same ground, they are markedly different in tone and likely aimed at different audiences.  Klotz and Sylvester provide a compact but easily-accessible account of the dangerous course traversed by the U.S. biodefense industry in the last decade.  Their tone is that of the courtroom advocate, presenting arguments that, though forceful, are clear and well-reasoned.  King takes the tone of the activist in the street, writing with a passion and emotive voice that Klotz and Sylvester lack.

King discusses his personal involvement with efforts against the construction of a biological research laboratory near his home, and throughout his book conveys a proximity to the issues that lends his account a frenetic authenticity.  While some might find this appealing, it is ultimately the source of the book's critical flaw: a failure to recognize nuance and complexity, compounded by a disorderly presentation.  King describes a black-and-white ethical universe in which the "academic-military-industrial complex" is aligned diametrically against the interests of the U.S. citizen.

King's outlook, likely attributable to his proximity to "the struggle," rejects the possibility that some biodefense research is justified or even useful.  This is contrary to fact.  Despite the dangers associated with biodefense research, Klotz and Sylvester never suggest "a simplistic set of regulations that would achieve some form of biosecurity at the expense of the enormous potential already demonstrated by the new biology."14 They point to recent work done with botulin, the most potent poison known, which increased its killing power fourteenfold.15 Alongside botulinum's potential as a bioweapon, however, it has countless clinical uses, from stroke, to cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, back spasms, and tennis elbow.16 The ability to increase the toxin's potency has also increased its usefulness in treating these and other ailments. All biodefense research, therefore, is not alike.

While King's overly-simplistic stance toward the utility of biodefense research detracts from the logical coherence of his argument, he is largely correct that the lion's share of that research-if not completely without utility-is at a minimum an unjustifiable draw on limited resources.  Here King, Klotz, and Sylvester agree: most of the funds directed to biodefense research ought instead to be spent on more common public health threats, like HIV and common influenza. The authors rightly conclude that U.S. research policy should focus on public health rather than on public fear.

Andrew Thibedeau is a Fellow of the Council for Responsible Genetics.

 

Endnotes

 

1. Lynn C. Klotz and Edward J. Sylvester, Breeding Bio Insecurity: How U.S. Biodefense Is Exporting Fear, Globalizing Risk, and Making Us All Less Secure (2009).
2. Kenneth King, Germs Gone Wild: How the Unchecked Development of Domestic Biodefense Threatens America (2010)
3. Klotz and Sylvester, supra note 1.
4. Alfred Jay Bollet, Plagues and Poxes: The Impact of Human History on Epidemic Disease (2004).
5. Biodefense: Research Methodology and Animal Models (James R. Swearengen ed., 2006).
6. Kenneth King, supra note 2, at 433 (2010) (quoting Scientists Working Group on Biological and Chemical Weapons, Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, Biological Threats: A Matter of Balance (Jan. 26, 2010)).
7.  Klotz and Sylvester, supra note 1, at 93 (emphasis in original).
8. Klotz and Sylvester, supra note 1, at 79.
9. U.S. Center for Disease Control statistics.
10. Crystal Franco, Billions for Biodefense: Federal Agency Biodefense Funding FY2009-FY2010, Biosecurity and Bioterrorism: Biodefense strategy, Practice, and Science, vol. 7, no. 3 (2009): 1-19.
11. Klotz and Sylvester, supra note 1, at 15.
12. Id. at  4.
13. Id.
14. Id. at 144.
15. Klotz and Sylvester, supra note 1, at 23.  See also Laura A. McAllister et al, Superactivation of the Botulinum Neurotoxin Serotype A Light Chain Metalloprotease: A New Wrinkle in Botulinum Neurotoxin, J. Am. Chem. Soc., vol. 128 (2006): 4176-4177.
16. J. Jankovic, Botulinum Toxin in Clinical Practice, J. Neurol. Neurosurg. Psychiatry, v. 74 (2004): 951-957.

 

 
 
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