Published in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists Online on February 2, 2010
Article summary below; read the full text online
The Graham-Talent WMD Commission asserted again last week that a bioterrorism attack that “will fundamentally change the character of life for the world’s democracies” is highly likely to occur within the next four years. The commission argues that the United States must urgently expand its efforts to develop vaccines and other medical countermeasures against potential bioterrorism agents.
We disagree with the commission on both points. It exaggerates the bioterrorist threat and proposes solutions that won’t produce the comprehensive approach needed to strengthen public health security.
The bioterrorist threat must be kept in perspective. Although many fictional “tabletop” scenarios and exercises have predicted bioterrorism catastrophes, these scenarios often have used unrealistic values for critical disease parameters and have routinely ignored the organizational and technical difficulties that terrorists would have in organizing, and successfully carrying out, a bioweapons attack. The history of both state-operated bioweapons programs and unsuccessful terrorist attempts to develop and use such weapons (e.g., the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo) have demonstrated, again and again, the significant difficulties that confront making and disseminating a biological weapon. The 2001 anthrax letter attacks, which were seen as validating the catastrophic scenarios, appear to have been executed with anthrax developed in a U.S. biodefense laboratory with capabilities vastly superior in scale and quality to anything a terrorist could achieve.
Advances in the life sciences may gradually put bioweapon capabilities closer within terrorist reach, but scientific and technological progress alone doesn’t warrant exaggeration of the bioterrorist threat. Rather than basing policy on worst-case scenarios, the United States should develop and conduct more plausible, sophisticated threat assessments that take into account the complex set of political, social, and technical factors that would affect bioweapons development and use.