One of the side effects of the Graham-Talent WMD Commission's bioterror screech is that people will latch onto the study as an excuse to propose the
March 1, 2010

Botulinum toxin

One of the side effects of the Graham-Talent WMD Commission's bioterror screech is that people will latch onto the study as an excuse to propose the most ridiculous schemes. These are ideas that shouldn't ever see the light of day, and to see them in print is just an indication of the poor understanding that editors and journalists have about the issue. Take, for instance, former Bush administration official Tevi Troy discussing the need for "home medkits" for every US household - handy for when that predicted bioterrorist incident arrives within the next few years, as predicted in the G-T report.

"As the Obama administration looks at options for improving its recent failing grade on rapid response to biological attacks, they should make sure to consider home medkits as part of their countermeasure distribution tool kit," Mr. Troy tells the Beltway.

"Medkits let individuals prepare themselves and their families for possible biological incidents - be they naturally occurring or man-made - and they reduce the burden on federal officials who have to distribute desperately needed medications to thousands if not millions of people in a very short time frame," he continues.

"Unfortunately, some public health experts and federal officials don't like medkits because they fear that people can't be trusted to use the materials only when necessary. This short-sighted mentality will make it much harder to get crucial countermeasures distributed appropriately when needed."

What a really bad idea. Let's get past the insanity of having the federal government purchase antibiotics and vaccine shots for the entire population of the United States - medical countermeasures that would need to be repurchased and redistributed every few years. There are a lot of different biological agents out there. Not all respond to post-treatment pharmaceuticals. And what exactly do we do when the "American Idol"-loving population decides to take the meds for influenza? or maybe they think that the pills will help with the screaming baby's high fever? No, Mr. Troy, there is no reason to trust Joe Public when it comes to medical countermeasures.

And then there's Brian Finlay from the Stimson Center who wants to place US biotech companies on the "most wanted" list as potential breeding grounds for the next bioterrorist incident. In his report, titled "Pharmaceutical Terror," he puts a picture of Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the second page - because, you know, Iran's all about getting biological agents and giving them to terrorists. This is a Serious Report. There's no way that Iran would be developing a pharmaceutical industry to develop medical countermeasures for its public.

Finlay is concerned that foreign companies who work in the biotech industry might deal with a state sponsor of terrorism. Well of course they do. It's profitable. That's all that counts. What happens with the technology and material after it gets to Iran is not their concern, only that they follow the letter of the law. You know what might change that behavior? If some nation pushed hard for the development of a verification regime for the Biological Weapons Convention, there might be some regulation in biosecurity and international commerce. But neither the former administration - or shockingly, this administration - seems to care much about that.

Says Finlay, "In short, the public health agencies of the United States must be given an express role in the national security of our country, particularly as the line between peaceful biotechnological research and offensive biological weapons intent becomes increasingly blurred." This is a dangerous sentiment. Although the public health sector would love the added attention (and money), the security measures might hamper research and unnecessarily increase surveillance measures in the public sector. There are a lot more diseases that are not on the Select Agent and Toxins list that cause sickness and death in the United States than not. There's a real possibility that the added focus on the Select Agent list could divert resources from the real public health challenges.

In short, we need less hype and more honest assessments of the bioterrorism threat. There is more that could be done, but these two gentlemen are steering us toward the wrong conclusions.

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