Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Tula-rula-remia, Tula-rula-reeze,

Tula-rula-remia, that's a rabbit-borne disease . . .

An absurdly major flap here in the Hub of the Universe concerns a couple of laboratory workers at Boston University who got sick a few months ago -- not mortally ill, not permanently injured, not suffering what Alberto Gonzales would consider tortuous symptoms such as major organ failure or death -- just plain old sick with a flu-like illness. They got better. Then a few weeks later, for undisclosed reasons, they took antibody tests and it turned out that the batch of tularemia they were working with, which was supposed to be a weakened form, was actually pathogenic and they apparently had been infected. They were supposed to report this to the Department of Public Health but they were a little late getting around to it. The results of this major public health catastrophe included a media frenzy featuring at least two Page 1 stories in the local bird cage liner, and the resignation of BU's infectious disease lab director.

FYI, tularemia is a bacterium which causes a disease of the same name. It is not contagious from person to person. It's typically spread by ticks, and the natural reservoir is cute little furry animals such as rabbits. It's basically no big deal, but some people have the idea that it could be worked up into a biological weapon, which personally I doubt. Anyhow, this total non-story probably would have gotten far more attention than it deserved in any case, but it got pumped up big time because BU is planning to build a so-called Level 4 biosafety lab -- where else but in the middle of a low-income predominantly Black neighborhood. That's a laboratory for working with the most dangerous pathogens, designed so that it would be very difficult for the bugs to escape. It has been highly controversial, with the local student social action groups joining with community organizations and lefty profs in Mortal Kombat with BU's lobbying and marketing apparatus, which is major league. BU has, for example, taken over entire subway trains with ads touting the beauty and glory of its biosafety lab, and it has the Mayor and City Council securely in its pocket.

The purpose of this endeavour is supposedly to do research on "bioterrorism." I'm not going to take a position on whether the lab would really pose a significant threat to the surrounding community, I like to have some idea of what I'm talking about before I pretend that I do, but I will take the opportunity to deconstruct this entire discussion.

First of all, while one cannot rule out that such research might yield knowledge which is helpful to combatting natural epidemics, it would be a highly inefficient use of resources for that purpose. Most of the research consists of figuring out ways to produce biological weapons, because you have to be able to produce them if you want to study how to counter them. The rest of the world just has to trust us that our intentions in doing this are honorable. Just imagine how the U.S. would react if Iran or, say, Venezuela, was engaged in such research. Could this possibly be considered a Weapons of Mass Destruction Related Program Activity? Just asking.

Second, bioterrorism (or biological warfare, as presumably it would be called if the perpetrator was a powerful, sovereign nation as opposed to a relatively weak, non-state group) is not all that it's cracked up to be. Non-contagious organisms, such as anthrax or tularemia, are not in fact Weapons of Mass Destruction (tm). Colin Powell told the UN Security Council that Saddam possessed enough anthrax spores to kill millions of people. Actually he didn't possess any, but suppose he did have all those anthrax spores? The only way they could kill millions of people is if somebody went around and systematically put precisely measured quantities up millions of people's noses. By that standard, firecrackers are also Weapons of Mass Destruction (tm) because they could kill millions of people using the same procedure. In order to harm people using non-contagious organisms, you have to deliver them to the people's respiratory systems or some other route into the body. If you can do that, you can also hit the people with a bomb or a bullet. Remember that for all the disruption caused by the anthrax mailer, only five people died from that attack. An equally, or even more destructive effect could easily have been achieved by mailing bombs. If Saddam were to have given anthrax spores to Osama bin Laden, it is not clear that al Qaeda would have become notably more dangerous. This is a long, hard wrangle which I won't get into in more detail here.

Contagious diseases could indeed cause massive destruction, but they are not very tempting as weapons because the attacker cannot control where they go, which is around the world including right back at the attacker and the populations he (or maybe she) cares about. In principal, a mad conqueror could immunize his entire population against a novel pathogen, and then release it on the rest of the world, but it is questionable whether research in a biosafety lab has anything to do with preventing such a catastrophe, assuming one considers it a plausible risk to begin with. Biological agents are potentially useful for assassinations, and perhaps for larger scale targeted attacks where the perpetrator wishes to remain concealed (viz Bagwhan Shree Rajneesh).

There are, however, very real, very dangerous weapons of mass destruction in the world today. The United States owns the largest share of them, followed by Russia, and including our buddies over in Merry Old England and those snooty, brie-eating, wine sipping surrender monkeys. And oh yeah, our best pals Israel and Pakistan. Funny thing -- the Resident said a few months back that "democracies don't manufacture weapons of mass destruction." So it turns out that nuclear explosive devices are no longer considered Weapons of Mass Destruction (tm).


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