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BIGGER WORRIES THAN BIOCHEM

Lost in the hullabaloo over David Kay's report on Iraq's unconventional arms are some pretty basic questions. Like, why all the hysteria about biological and chemical weapons in the first place? And why is America spending billions to defend against on a large-scale biochem attack that'll almost certainly never come?Maybe the hyperventilating news accounts are true, that Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups have tried to get their hands on such agents. But without the expertise and funding of a state sponsor like Iraq, it's almost impossible to pull off the attack of Biblical significance that the press has been wailing about for so long.Heck, even with a state sponsor, it's extremely difficult. Lots and lots of money and expertise and needed. Environmental conditions have to be just right; a strong breeze or a light snow will neuter a big chunk of biological strikes.So it's no surprise that, since 1900, there have been only 40 recorded bio-attacks. Compare that to conventional terrorist strikes, the ones using guns and bombs. There have been more than 650 of them worldwide -- just since the start of 2002, observes Gary Ackerman, with the Center for Nonprofileration Studies, in a soon-to-be-published article. What's more, "there has never been a single bioterrorist incident with more than 15 fatalities -- an all-too-common occurrence when terrorists use conventional weapons," he writes.Despite this, the Department of Homeland Security's 2004 budget, signed into law last Wednesday, allocates nearly $900 million for "Project BioShield," an effort to prep vaccines and treatments for biological and other threats; $88 million for the "National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center," to protect people and crops from germ attacks; $38 million for air filters to catch pathogens; $84 million for the public health system, to treat biological and chemical-attack victims; the list goes on, just about endlessly. And it doesn't even begin to touch the $1.2 billion the Pentagon wants to spend next year on chem-bio detection, the $1.6-or-so billion from the National Institutes of Health, or the $600 million that President Bush wants to spend to keep looking for Saddam's unconventional stash.My Tech Central Station article has more.THERE'S MORE: A number of people wrote in, expressing upset with this story. But JB -- a doctor -- was the most eloquent, by far. Here's what he had to say:

Your analysis and conclusions are probably correct, with regard to both chemical weapons and biotoxins such as botulinum.But they are utterly and dangerously incorrect when applied to biological agents that can infect humans, reproduce and amplify themselves and then spread to other people. Then it is not a question of quantity or dispersion, but of creating an agent with the right incubation period, mode of transmission and lethality, and then introducing it into the target environment in the proper way.All of which is, unfortunately, now easy.You may have heard of the Australian mousepox experiments, the news of which made quite a stir in interested circles a year and a half ago or so. Researchers, in an effort to use mousepox virus (a normally mild, nonlethal murine infection) as a vector for a cytokine (IL-4) to induce inflammation in infected mice and suppress their reproduction, found that the insertion of the gene for that cytokine turned this little nothing disease into a fatal one, and that previously useful mousepox vaccine became fairly ineffective, to boot.Note that mousepox is related to the virus that causes human smallpox, that you can buy the necessary materials mail order easy as you please, and that the technology for inserting a gene for this or something else into an existing viral genome is trivial, and could be done by any grad student in the subject with access to any reasonable university or industrial molecular bio/genetics lab.This, of course, is just an example. You could just as well modify Ebola virus to extend its non-prostrating contagious period a little, so epidemics would spread instead of burning out, etc. etc.The danger is acute. We are now in a period of time, which may last 10 years or so (no one knows), in which the ability to create such genetically modified killers is widespread, but the ability to identify, respond to, and neutralize them quickly enough to avert catastrophe, has not yet developed. And every day's news reminds us that the irrational evil that would not for a moment hesitate to use such a weapon continues to exist in the world.By downplaying the need to use all available methods and strategies (including, of course, pre-emptive military action when necessary) to prevent this threat from killing millions of innocents is wrong.
AND MORE: Barbara Rosenberg, with the Federation of American Scientists, calls JB's warning the "typical response of the scientist who knows nothing about BW (biological weapons)."
He says it is easy. Ha. No terrorist group would waste time and resources to genetically engineer a new agent and test the result, including field tests of delivery etc etc. when they can get a bigger, faster and far more reliable bang by simple, conventional means. Extending the incubation time of ebola is not something you take off the shelf. Furthermore, the uncontrollable epidemic scenario is vastly exaggerated. Ask public health officials who have seen smallpox epidemics.Incidentally, the mousepox experiment increased lethality, not infectivity. Existing agents are already sufficiently lethal.He's right, we need to be able to respond quickly to outbreaks -- but no intentional outbreak will ever rival what nature already does (while few in the developed world pay any attention).
AND MORE: The tone of the piece was that defending against biological weapons is pointless because they have never killed more than 15 people per given incident," writes Defense Tech pal Wyatt Earp."But that's not accurate because bioweapons have killed more than 15 people per incident in the past. Bioterror is just a spin-word for an act of war using biological weapons. And biological weapons while not changing the outcome of wars, have inflicted mass casualties on civilian populations during warfare and have killed more than 15 people (during anthrax leaks) in Russia.AND MORE: James Lewis, with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, forwards on an article (unavailable online, sorry) that basically says the worry over bio-terror began when Bill Clinton started reading apocalyptic novels like the Cobra Event and Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six.AND MORE: Defense Tech reader DS reminds us to "keep in mind (that) setting priorities is always hardest at the outset of war. Over time, have faith that the USA will get its act together."AND MORE: RS, a distinguished Defense Tech reader, says to check out the Adrienne Mayor's Greek Fire, Poison Arrows and Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare inthe Ancient World. (The Times did a story on Tuesday keyed off of the book.)Biochem warfare "all started in -- I swear by the Gas Mask of Gilgamesh -- Sumeria, circa 1700 BC," RS notes. That "provides Iraq with considerable wiggle room, as thay can claim that anything Dave Kay digs up is just war surplus from Tilgath Pileser's last hit on Uruk."AND MORE: "When deciding where to allocate resources, one must take into account not only the probability of the threat, but its potential consequences," JB fires back at Barbara Rosenberg. "While a conventional suicide bomber or another plane hijacking are certainly much more probable than the scenarios we are discussing here, the deaths and civilizational disruptions they would cause would be trivial in comparison to a successful biological or nuclear attack."
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