News | May 1, 2008

Preparing for Catastrophic Bioterrorism: Toward a Long-Term Strategy for Limiting the Risk

By Richard Danzig

Our national biodefense program—our program to defend Americans at home and abroad against the use of bacteria, viruses, toxins, and neuro-modulators as weapons—is an agglomeration of tactics presented as a strategy. Because we do not have a true strategy, our efforts are afflicted by three kinds of failure.
First, we suffer from critical gaps, disconnects, and an absence of synergies, both within our Federal bureaucracies and between our Federal government and state, local, and foreign governments.

Second, we are not effectively engaging the public (whose acceptance, attitudes, and actions are crucial to preparing for and responding to attacks) and private industry (where drug and defense companies in particular can offer much-needed skills and resources).

Third, we have not created mechanisms of discussion and decision that are robust enough to build consensus, illuminate difficulties, and allocate responsibilities for overcoming these difficulties.

Many things are required to correct those failings, but I believe that four are fundamental. We must:
articulate how bioterrorism fits into an overarching concept of terrorism;

  • identify characteristics of bioterrorism that imperil our national security;
  • build our initiatives around these characteristics rather than, as at present, largely ignoring them—we now allocate our energies and resources largely in response to bureaucratic and political competitions, pressure from professional and contractor interests, and the attractions of incremental opportunities for technology growth; and
  • develop an organization and processes that will transcend the tendencies of participants in biodefense work to pursue separate agendas—these cannot be eradicated, but they can be orchestrated.

This paper, circulated within government early in 2006, outlines an approach to these requirements and provides several examples of how the application of this approach can create a strategy. As described below, several of the recommendations offered here have recently been acted upon, some of them encouraged by this work, others as a consequence of independent, parallel initiatives. Nonetheless, more than 6 years—a period longer than World War II—after the 2001 anthrax letters  catalyzed greater government efforts to counter bioterrorism, our homeland security officials are still struggling to define a biodefense strategy. This paper is being published in the hope that a broader discussion will yield further progress.