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Issue 18: Microbe Attack / Microbe Attack

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Welcome to FLYP, a new online magazine that looks at the people and issues shaping America. Flip through this article for a truly interactive experience.

Microbe Attack

Since 2001, almost $50 billion has been spent countering bioterrorism. Are we any safer?

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The news emerged in frightening fragments in the fall of 2001. Just a week after the horrors of 9/11, as the ruins of the World Trade Center still smoldered, the specter of bioterrorism appeared.
This new threat arrived in the form of a series of anonymous letters laden with anthrax spores that began traveling through the U.S. postal system to deliver death and disease up and down the East Coast. Before it was over, this new and anonymous invader had temporarily closed the halls of Congress and wreaked havoc with the U.S. mails. The attack left five people dead and 17 others infected.
To Tara O’Toole, a physician at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Civilian Bioterrorism, the anthrax mailings were a grim warning. A similar attack, carried out effectively, she told U.S. policy makers, could have infinitely more lethal results. She and other like-minded scientists asserted that another germ attack was inevitable, and unless the federal government invested billions of dollars to defend against bioterrorism, our citizens could die by the millions.
O’Toole was part of a small group of policy experts who had been warning senior government officials for several years about the threat of bioterrorism. Their concern predated 9/11 and the anthrax attacks that followed—as well as the Bush administration itself—and was prompted not by Islamic terrorism but by the revelations in the 1990s about Biopreparat, the Soviet Union’s immense secret biological weapons program.
These policy specialists pressed their case all the way to the Oval Office during Bill Clinton’s second term in office and continued the campaign after George W. Bush became president.
The science of putting together a biological weapon is so simple, O’Toole says, that “the biggest hurdle right now is getting a sample of the pathogen.” And that, she adds, is not a big barrier.
“Anthrax exists in the soil,” explains O’Toole. “You can go online and find out where various disease outbreaks such as Ebola are going on. And if you have a plane ticket and know how to get a sample of these things, you’re kind of off to the races.”
In the bleak autumn days of 2001, Congress and the White House quickly embraced O’Toole’s apocalyptic view, which was supported by numerous experts and lawmakers who were transfixed by the fear that a biological attack could destabilize the nation.
Now, seven years later, $48 billion has been spent on biosecurity, including $20 billion for research, and there have been no subsequent attacks.

Two bioterrorism experts—Gigi Kwik Gronvall and Richard Ebright—offer two views on how America can best build its biodefense. Watch FLYP’s video interviews here.

In FLYP’s interactive infographic, find out how the six agents of terror that pose the greatest risk to American civilians act upon the human body.

A QUESTION OF SAFETY
Mission accomplished? Hardly, say a range of security and public health analysts, who offer a disquieting alternative explanation: the government spent so much money on bioterrorism—and spent it so rapidly and without adequate reflection—that it may have actually increased the threat of biological agents infecting or killing American citizens.
Back in 2001, when O’Toole and others were operating under the assumption that terrorists were behind the anthrax attacks, Milton Leitenberg, a security analyst at the University of Maryland’s Center for International Security Studies and an expert in nuclear and biological weapons, belonged to another school of thought.
He and other arms control experts believed the attacks were likely launched by someone inside a U.S. biodefense lab. The anthrax came from a sophisticated form of the spore, they reasoned—a substance likely to originate from the labs of a scientifically advanced nation.
If their theory was correct, averting future attacks meant tightening lab security and safety, especially if the government was committed to expanding toxin research.

FLYP Media presents an interactive graphic that explains each of the four levels of biodefense laboratories, and which deadly pathogens each is allowed to handle or store.

Seven years after the attacks, it seems increasingly likely that this second theory was right.
The FBI concluded in July that the sole perpetrator of the 2001 attacks was Bruce Ivins, who worked on anthrax vaccines at a U.S. Army biological research center in Fort Detrick, Md.
Although the evidence pinning the attacks on Ivins is circumstantial, few seriously question the evidence linking the attacks to his lab. Unfortunately, we will never know the truth: Ivins committed suicide before the government could try to prove its theory in court.
But the growing likelihood that lax security at our nation’s labs was a factor in the anthrax attacks has reinforced a longstanding concern of some weapons analysts. While some of the money invested in biodefense over the last seven years has undoubtedly been wasted, what’s really frightening is that the $20 billion spent on biodefense research might actually have heightened America’s risk of a biological attack or accident.

INHERENT RISK
With tens of billions of federal dollars suddenly available for bioterror research in the years following the 2001 attacks, thousands of microbiologists turned their attention—and that of their labs—to this rewarding new field of study.
Meanwhile, the National Institutes of Health was encouraging new labs to branch out into research that could lead to new vaccines.
The result was hundreds of new sites handling deadly pathogens.
“Suddenly there were swarms of people wanting to work on this issue,” says Margaret Hamburg, a former New York City Public Health Commission and senior official at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
She recalls the harried atmosphere when the spending surge began in 2002: “Lots of money—there was just a frenzy [of government contractors] at the feeding trough.”
Dr. Richard Ebright of the Waksman Institute of Microbiology at Rutgers University estimates that the number of labs capable of handling the most dangerous pathogens has multiplied 20- to 30-fold since funding was increased dramatically in 2001.
Today, some 350 public and private facilities consisting of close to 1,400 laboratories and more than 14,000 scientists are authorized to purchase toxins like monkeypox (used to make smallpox vaccines), Ebola, ricin and Yersinia pestis, more commonly known as plague.

What is the next step in ensuring America’s safety against biological weapons? In FLYP’s video interview with Admiral W. Craig Vanderwagen, who is the assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Department of Health and Human Services, offers a briefing.

Along the way, the U.S. increased the possible margin for error—or terror.
“The simplest, most likely path for an individual or group to acquire a bio-weapons capability is to obtain bioweapons agents and training by penetration of a U.S. bioweapons-agents research project,” says Ebright. “One well-placed graduate student, post-doctoral fellow or technician…it’s only a matter of time.”
Brian Finlay, a senior associate at the Henry L. Stimson Center, a nonprofit think tank focused on reducing the dangers of weapons of mass destruction, concurs: “There is no question that the proliferation of bioresearch is leaving us less secure by the day.”
Even those who support increased biodefense research have been left wondering why so many new laboratories are needed.
“It’s not clear to me what we’re going to do with all of them, frankly,” says O’Toole.

Preparing for the Worst: Dr. Richard Besser of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sat down with FLYP Media to discuss America’s commitment to biosecurity. Watch the video interview here.


BIGGER ISSUES

The real problem, however, was probably more profound: in the unsettled and disturbing days after 9/11 and the anthrax attacks, federal policymakers may have seriously overreacted to the nature of the threat against America.
Leitenberg, for one, believes that war games such as Dark Winter greatly exaggerated the terrorist groups’ ability to create effective bioweapons.
“The assumptions that were given for what the terrorists were capable of doing were completely artificial,” says Leitenberg. “No known terrorist group in the world has shown the smallest portion of the capability attributed to them in Dark Winter and Atlantic Storm.”
The disquieting upshot, he says, is that U.S. spending on bioterrorism is pulling resources from more likely public health disasters, such as pandemic flu, the infectious virus SARS, tuberculosis and malaria.
Many others shared Leitenberg’s concerns. In 2005, more than 750 researchers wrote an open letter to the head of the National Institutes of Health complaining about the 15-fold increase in biosecurity research grants between 2001 and 2005 at a time when grants for other microbial research were cut almost in half. 
Alan Pearson, director of the biological and chemical weapons control program at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, points to spending by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as an example.

Listen to bioterrorism expert Edward Hammond while exploring FLYP’s interactive infographic on where these biosecurity facilities and labs are located throughout the 50 states, and the deadly toxins each one handles.

His analysis of the agency’s budget showed that despite serious outbreaks of food-borne illnesses in recent years, spending on food safety remains flat while spending on biodefense continues to rise.
In 2001, virtually no FDA food safety money was allocated for biodefense. But this year, a third of the $510 million food safety budget will go to biodefense, according to Pearson’s calculations.
Hamburg, now a senior scientist with the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing the global risk from weapons of mass destruction, hopes that after seven years and $48 billion have produced such uneven results, the new administration will do a full-scale assessment of the various terrorism threats America faces.
“A critical issue for the next administration,” she say, “is going to be to…make some hard decisions about what programs just haven’t fulfilled their promise or never made sense in the beginning and which programs have value but need to be strengthened or extended.”

FLYP sat down with Brian Finlay of the Henry L. Stimson Foundation to discuss a solution to bioterror. Watch the video interview here.