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The bioterror bugaboo

The appointment of an overzealous researcher as undersecretary of science and technology at Homeland Security suggests the U.S. is not going to amend its overreactive biodefense strategy any time soon.

July 17, 2009|Wendy Orent | Wendy Orent is the author of "Plague: The Mysterious Past and Terrifying Future of the World's Most Dangerous Disease."

After the anthrax letter attacks of October 2001, the Bush administration pledged $57 billion to keep the nation safe from bioterror. Since then, the government has created a vast network of laboratories and institutions to track down and block every remotely conceivable form of bioterror threat.

The Obama administration seems committed to continuing the biodefense push, having just appointed a zealous bioterror researcher as undersecretary of science and technology in the Department of Homeland Security.

But is the threat really as great as we've been led to believe?

Last summer, the FBI concluded that the anthrax letters that killed five Americans came not from abroad but from an American laboratory, the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. Meanwhile, the Russian bioweapons program was officially shut down in 1992, and it's unlikely that anything remaining of it could pose much of a threat. Iraq, it has turned out, had no active program. And Al Qaeda's rudimentary explorations were interrupted, according to an Army War College report, by the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.

So, you may be asking, who is the enemy and why we are spending so much trying to protect ourselves? Those are good questions, but don't expect government officials to be asking them any time soon.

Dr. Tara O'Toole, the administration's choice for the Homeland Security undersecretary of science and technology, is a fierce advocate of biodefense. In fact, her critics say, she is so dedicated to awakening people to the bioterror threat that she mangles facts and figures in a way that exaggerates the danger.

Especially troubling, they say, are two influential "tabletop exercises" O'Toole designed to model the impact -- and raise government awareness -- of the smallpox bioterror threat.

J. Michael Lane, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's smallpox eradication program, is particularly troubled by one model called "Dark Winter," which was released in 2001. The model, he and others say, exaggerates the smallpox threat by assuming astoundingly high rates of transmission. "People get desperately sick before they are able to transmit the virus. They're knocked off their feet with high fevers and severe muscle pains before they're contagious," he explained. That means that each patient generally transmits the disease to just one or two others. Dark Winter used rates of 10 new infections for each patient, which meant the model predicted widespread infection and death from a smallpox attack.

Richard Ebright, a Rutgers microbiologist, believes that Dark Winter induced "shock and awe among participating government officials." And that reaction, he says, drove "disastrous policies in biodefense, biopreparedness and counter-terrorism during the Bush administration."

A second computer model produced in 2006 by O'Toole and her University of Pittsburgh Center for Biosecurity, "Atlantic Storm," assumed much lower reproduction rates with the smallpox virus. But O'Toole's critics say that the simulation seemed designed to create alarm. It was based on a scenario that a "radical Al Qaeda splinter group" had released dried, powdered smallpox in eight countries.

In a report written for the War College, biodefense expert Milton Leitenberg declared the premise absurd, noting that Al Qaeda has no means to culture viruses. Moreover, he noted, no bioweapons program, including the massive Soviet operation, has ever worked with dried smallpox, which is extremely dangerous to handle.

Leitenberg ends his discussion of Atlantic Storm with a quote from O'Toole: "This is not science fiction; the Age of Bioterror is now." Leitenberg disagreed. "Rather," he wrote, "it was science fiction, because the scenario antecedents are ... not in the least plausible."

O'Toole does have her supporters. Stephen Morse of Columbia University feels that O'Toole's tabletops served to awaken a complacent country to a genuine threat. "They're teaching tools," said Morse, who wrote a letter supporting O'Toole's nomination.

He has a point. But today the country has moved too far in the other direction, seeing deadly biothreats where they simply don't exist. And with O'Toole in a key position to drive the administration's actions, it's unlikely we'll rethink our strategy any time soon.

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