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Top U.S. Disease Fighters Warn of New Engineered Pathogens but Call Bioweapons Doomsday Unlikely

By Joe Fiorill

Global Security Newswire

WASHINGTON — The top officials charged with protecting the United States against a biological attack yesterday played down concerns that a new agent could exterminate the human race but warned that the threat of new, engineered pathogens remains serious (see GSN, July 13).

“As the power of biological science and technology continues to grow, it will become increasingly possible that we will face an attack with a pathogen that has been deliberately engineered for increased virulence,” National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci said in prepared testimony to the House of Representatives Homeland Security Subcommittee on Prevention of Nuclear and Biological Attack.

Concern has risen in Washington in recent years that a terrorist group or unfriendly country could employ increasingly available bioengineering know-how to design a new agent to be particularly potent or to resist existing antibiotics.

Agents could be made more virulent through “resistance to one or more antibiotic or antiviral drugs, increased infectiousness or pathogenicity or, in the somewhat longer term, a new virulent pathogen made by combining genes from more than one organism,” Fauci said. Development of therapies and vaccines with broad applications and more research into human immune function are under way as part of the effort to counter the threat, he said.

Asked by Representative Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) whether a pathogen could be engineered that would be virulent enough to “wipe out all of humanity,” Fauci and other top officials at the hearing said such an agent was technically feasible but in practice unlikely.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Julie Gerberding said a deadly agent could be engineered with relative ease that could spread throughout the world if left unchecked, but that the outbreak would be unlikely to defeat countries’ detection and response systems.

“The technical obstacles are really trivial,” Gerberding said. “What’s difficult is the distribution of agents in ways that would bypass our capacity to recognize and intervene effectively.”

Fauci said creating an agent whose transmissibility could be sustained on such a scale, even as authorities worked to counter it, would be a daunting task.

“Would you end up with a microbe that functionally will … essentially wipe out everyone from the face of the Earth? … It would be very, very difficult to do that,” he said.

Officials Outline Work to Implement Bush PlanSpeakers at the hearing described a variety of ways in which their agencies were implementing President George W. Bush’s April 2004 Biodefense for the 21st Century initiative, organized around the four “pillars” of awareness, prevention, detection and response.

Fauci highlighted his institute’s work on boosting the human innate immune system, a strategy he said could lead to countermeasures that would be useful against a wide variety of different agents.

Army Medical Research and Materiel Commander Eric Schoomaker focused on the coming benefits of interagency cooperation at the planned National Interagency Biodefense Campus at Fort Detrick, Md. The Defense, Health and Human Services and Homeland Security departments are participating in the campus project.

Subcommittee Chairman John Linder (R-Ga.) called for better coordination between intelligence and disease-fighting agencies.

“Science, tools, reagents and technology may be ubiquitous. Scientists, however, are not,” Linder said. “We have to do a better job of keeping track of those individuals with skill sets that are attractive to potential terrorists.”

Dicks Questions Pace of Threat AssessmentsRepresentative Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) renewed Democratic criticism of the pace at which Homeland Security is assessing threats posed by different biological agents (see GSN, July 12).

The Homeland Security assessments determine whether Health and Human Services initiates efforts to develop or acquire countermeasures against various agents.

To date, Homeland Security has issued threat determinations for anthrax, smallpox, botulinum toxin and radiological and nuclear devices. Democrats criticized that number as too low, pointing out that the CDC’s list of pathogens that must be reviewed comprises more than 60 agents.

“I agree there is a concern and it needs to be moved faster," Fauci said in reply to Dicks.

Homeland Security biological-countermeasures chief John Vitko told the Associated Press that the highest-priority threats were addressed first. “These are the ones of major concern,” Vitko told the news agency.

In his testimony to the subcommittee, Vitko said “assessments are nearly complete” for plague, tularemia and nerve agents and that an assessment of viral hemorrhagic fevers would begin next month.

Note to our Readers

GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

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