Analysts Debate Bioterror Risks

Even as the United States spends billions of dollars on biological defense initiatives, experts continue to debate the likelihood that terrorists could pull off a major attack using smallpox or another disease agent, ProPublica reported Friday (see GSN, May 20).

"I think in the palace of truth, the scientific community will tell you that the threat of the development of a (terrorist) biological weapon was vastly overblown," said Brian Finlay, an analyst at the Henry L. Stimson Center, said in an interview.

Still, "the threat of a successful dissemination of a dangerous pathogen has consequences that are potentially so excessively catastrophic that not investing resources to prevent even a remote chance of this occurrence would be an egregious abrogation of our government's responsibility to protect Americans," he added.

Significant concerns about bioterrorism first arose in the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union, with experts warning that personnel or pathogens from the Cold War superpower might end up in the hands of rogue nations or extremist groups.

Tabletop exercises in 2001 and 2005 portrayed the potentially devastating impact of smallpox attacks on the United States (see related GSN story, today).

"The most striking response from the participants in both exercises was that for the most part, they had no idea that something like this was possible," said Tara O'Toole, now head of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Biosecurity, who helped organize the war games, Dark Winter and Atlantic Storm.

However, University of Maryland WMD expert Milton Leitenberg expressed strong skepticism that terrorists could seize smallpox from a biological defense laboratory and then successfully reproduce and disperse the material. "The assumptions that were given [in the exercises] for what the terrorists were capable of doing were completely artificial and fantastical," he said.

Leitenberg said he uses information from government and private researchers and security analysts to determine the bioterrorism threat. To date, there are no indications that any group is moving toward a bioweapon capability, he said.

"It's a lot easier than putting together an internal-combustion engine," countered O'Toole, who said the threat is growing and the United States remains unprepared to deal with an incident.

A recent report by a congressionally mandated commission on WMD terrorism and proliferation also warned of the threat posed by biological weapons (see GSN, Dec. 1; Marcus Stern, ProPublica, Dec. 5).

December 11, 2008
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Even as the United States spends billions of dollars on biological defense initiatives, experts continue to debate the likelihood that terrorists could pull off a major attack using smallpox or another disease agent, ProPublica reported Friday (see GSN, May 20).