Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, April 22, 2005

The Real Bioterrorism

I had a chance to hear my old friend David Ozonoff speak a couple of days ago at the real World's Greatest medical School (located in Boston's Chinatown, convenient to all the restaurants). D.O. is an environmental health scientist of some renown. He reminds us that since 9-11 changed everything, it had to change the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) as well.

Boy did it. Billions of dollars have been shifted from research on diseases that people in the United States actually get in large numbers -- you know, the ones make us sick and kill us and stuff like that -- to research on infectious diseases that are extremely rare or actually entirely non-existent. The big ones are inhalation anthrax, botulism, plague, smallpox (extinct in nature) and tularemia. What do these all have in common? It is possible that by developing new strains and novel methods of dispersal -- or, in the case of smallpox, presumably, recreating it in a mad scientist's laboratory -- these could be used as weapons.

How likely is it that "terrorists" (as opposed to, say, the United States military) could do this? Well, if they had billions of dollars to spend like NIAID, they might be able to do it. Fortunately, they won't need the billions of dollars. NIAID is financing biosafety level four laboratories in Montana and Maryland, and wants to build one in the geographic center of Boston, to develop defenses against bioterrorism. Of course, in order to figure out how to defend against novel pathogens, first you have to make them.

So the idea is for the NIAID-funded scientists to sit around think, "Hmm, what would happen if you crossed HIV with the flu? That could be really bad! We'd better get started!" What's the first step if you want to make a vaccine, and a treatment, and a detection kit, for this new, horrific germ? Well, obviously, you have to create some AIDSfluenza. Now think about this. What is the single bioterrorist attack in recent times that killed anyone, in the United States or anywhere else? The post 9-11 anthrax mailing attack, of course. And where did that anthrax come from? Osama? Saddam? Kim Jong Il? God-hating liberal democratic Senators? Why no -- it came from a U.S. army biowarfare laboratory.

There isn't any AIDSfluenza anywhere in the world right now. And there is exactly one institution with the money, expertise and facilities to make some (or whatever other novel pathogen you can think up). And that would be? Yep, NIAID.

Now suppose Iran started building a biosafety level 4 laboratory like the one they want to build in Boston, to do the stuff they want to do there -- secret, military research. What do you think the U S of A would do about that?

Just askin'.

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