The impending closure of the FBI’s investigation of the anthrax-laced mailings of 2001 has generated new interest in the question: Are we safer today than we were when anthrax was distributed up and down the Eastern seaboard, killing five people and sickening 17 others? Unfortunately, the answer is probably no – despite our government’s best efforts to prevent a future bioterrorist incident.
Bioterrorism is like no other national security threat. What makes defending against it so challenging is the blurred line between beneficial research and destructive intent. For example, some of the same knowledge and equipment used to generate new lifesaving drugs could also inflict mass casualties in the hands of bioterrorists. As globalization spreads these biotechnologies around the world in support of improved public health, potentially dangerous knowledge is being placed in the hands of more individuals in more countries than ever before.
The problem can be domestic, as illustrated by the 2001 anthrax attacks, which the FBI says were launched by Bruce E. Ivins, a researcher at Fort Detrick in Frederick. Since 2001, 11 U.S. government agencies have spent upward of $50 billion to meet the threat of biological weapons. This has resulted in the rapid growth in the number of research organizations – public and private – that are handling dangerous biological agents. The inability of the military’s secure facility to prevent dispersion of anthrax highlights the practical complications of monitoring minute but deadly quantities of pathogens and toxins.
The problem is compounded many times over internationally. According to unclassified U.S. government sources, al-Qaida and an unknown number of other terrorist organizations, as well as Iran, Syria, North Korea and nine other countries, are pursuing offensive biological weapons programs. In many cases, their efforts are linked to – and masked by – civilian programs with allegedly peaceful purposes.
The biotechnological revolution has stimulated drastic worldwide growth in biological research and development and pharmaceuticals. For instance, in 2006, the Iranian drug market reached an estimated $1.58 billion, and it is expected to grow 50 percent by 2011. As part of its national development strategy, Tehran has made a concerted effort to encourage foreign drug companies to enter the Iranian market, introducing new technologies and capacities into that country to service its public health needs. But some experts allege that Iran has used these same capacities to develop small quantities of bioweapon agents, such as ricin, plague and the smallpox virus.
Iran has also opened its doors to a British pharmaceutical company to conduct clinical trials on a product containing botulinum toxin. The company’s decision to conduct trials may have involved the sharing of critical dual-use information. The willingness of legitimate foreign companies to share sensitive data with state sponsors of terrorism raises serious questions about our capacities to control sensitive biological agents, toxins and know-how.
In large part, we are not safer since 9/11 because of governments’ inability to effectively compete with the rapid pace of emerging biotechnologies, especially in separating their peaceful from their potentially hostile uses. This challenge cannot be addressed solely by increased government funding. Today, the threat is increasingly diffuse, ranging from small-scale, moderately sophisticated terrorist cells to legitimate biopharmaceutical companies that may unwittingly provide processes or materials for offensive bioweapons research.
The critical convergence of biotechnology and the rise of catastrophic terrorist intent highlights the need for greater cooperation between the public and private sectors in the areas of public health and national security. We need to incorporate industry and government into a coordinated strategy to monitor and regulate the proliferation of the most sensitive biological technologies. This means that the Food and Drug Administration and the rest of the Department of Health and Human Services must realize that decisions made in the name of public health could well have an impact on U.S. national security.
For example, the FDA is considering the approval of drugs by foreign companies whose dual-use research is prohibited by U.S. law for U.S. companies on national security and other grounds. The proliferation of high-security biosafety laboratories has occurred without any apparent consideration of the added risk of dangerous biological substances being handled at more locations and by more researchers.
Similarly, the biotech and pharmaceutical industries should appreciate that they too have a stake in the nonproliferation of dual-use technologies – certainly for reasons of national security, but also as it impacts their bottom line if their technology becomes a security risk.
All parties need to begin exercising stricter control over their technologies and inculcate security concerns into their decision-making by taking the threat of biological weapons as seriously as the threat from nuclear weapons. Until that happens, we will all remain more susceptible than we should be to the next bioterrorist attack.
Brian D. Finlay, senior associate at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington, is an expert on nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.