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WMD Panel Leaders Warn of Bioterror Threat

(Jul. 24) -Former Senators Jim Talent, left, and Bob Graham, leaders of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, shown in December. The former lawmakers argued in a recent editorial for increased measures against biological terrorism (Win McNamee/Getty Images). (Jul. 24) -Former Senators Jim Talent, left, and Bob Graham, leaders of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, shown in December. The former lawmakers argued in a recent editorial for increased measures against biological terrorism (Win McNamee/Getty Images).

The United States must take new measures to help counter the threat of biological terrorism, the heads of a congressional WMD advisory panel wrote in a journal editorial published this week (see GSN, March 13).

"In our commission report, World at Risk, we stated that terrorists are more likely to obtain and use a biological weapon than a nuclear weapon," states the editorial by former Senators Bob Graham and Jim Talent, respectively the chairman and vice chairman of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism.

There are a number of reasons for this conclusion, according to the commentary: Anthrax and other dangerous biological materials are found in nature around the world, while weapon-grade nuclear materials are not; it would be far easier to disperse a biological agent than to manufacture a nuclear weapon; and "there is an almost limitless array of disease-causing organisms and scenarios for ... nefarious use."

The panel determined that without aggressive action, a WMD incident was likely to occur at some location before 2014.

"We are now charged [by lawmakers] to ensure that Congress and the [Obama] administration take those decisive actions to prevent such an act of mass lethality from taking place on American soil," Graham and Talent wrote.

Additional precautions can help reduce a biological weapon's impact, the former lawmakers noted.

"it is important to have a biological weapons prevention strategy that does not merely involve crossing out 'nuclear' and adding ‘'bio,'" they stated. "There will be some similarities of approach, which we have detailed in our report: for example, preventing a biological attack will require continued support and investment in international treaties, such as the Biological Weapons Convention and U.N. Resolution 1540."

Greater preparedness is also needed to reduce the effects of a biological strike, they said. That means improved capabilities for detecting disease agents and vaccinating those who might be exposed to such a material. Drug development must also be improved, according to Graham and Talent.

"It takes 10 to 15 years and approximately $800 million from start to finish to develop one product, and 80 percent of all drug candidates that enter clinical trials ultimately fail to get FDA approval. Reducing costs and delay would position the country to make unprecedented contributions to global health," the editorial states.

By adequately preparing for biological-weapon attacks, the nation would eliminate the ability of such a strike to cause widespread harm, Graham and Talent wrote.

"A major part of our biodefense strategy should be based on reaching a level of preparedness that will effectively remove bioweapons from the category of WMD. This will happen neither quickly nor cheaply, but it will be well worth the investment," the editorial says (Graham/Talent, Biosecurity and Bioterrorism: Biodefense Strategy, Practice and Science, 2009)

NTI Analysis