Microbe Warfare Hides the Enemy

STANFORD, Calif.- For the past seven years, the United States has been negotiating a verification protocol to the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972, hoping to put teeth into the convention's ban on biological weapons production. The Bush administration recently rejected the latest draft of the protocol, viewing it as irredeemably flawed. This is a good time to ask what a new American strategy should be for security against biological threats. It is difficult to predict the likelihood or scale of biological attack. The right policy will provide benefits whether or not an attack occurs.

The first step is conceptual: we must stop thinking about biological security in the way we think about nuclear security. Few aspects of the United States strategy for nuclear security carry over cleanly to the biological case. Security against nuclear attack has relied upon nonproliferation and deterrence, with comparatively little role, so far, for defense. Security against biological-weapons threats should lean primarily on defense.

Nonproliferation, for example, is far more difficult in the biological case. Biological agents are microscopic organisms that can be grown with equipment readily available all over the world -- although the resulting weapons have proved difficult for terrorists to master. Many of the organisms can be acquired during naturally occurring outbreaks. Controls remain valuable, but they will never play the central role that they do in nuclear security. And as biotechnology explodes in the coming decades, nonproliferation will face ever greater challenges.

Deterrence may likewise be of limited use in preventing attacks with biological weapons. While the use of battlefield biological weapons may be deterred by threats, biological terrorism could remain largely immune. The incubation times of most diseases -- for example, seven to 17 days for smallpox -- may lead terrorists to hope they can cover their tracks through covert releases of biological agents. Deterrence relies on the threat of punishment. An attacker who cannot be identified cannot be threatened.

When the Aum Shinrikyo cultists sprayed an anthrax organism in Tokyo -- they did so unsuccessfully several times before their deadly 1995 nerve-gas attack -- they made no announcements and the attacks went unnoticed. When followers of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh infected 750 Oregonians in 1984 with salmonella, it took over a year for the attack to be distinguished from a natural outbreak.

Rather than nonproliferation and deterrence, biological security must emphasize civil defense. Civil defense in the biological realm means improving the public health system. Most important, it requires improving disease surveillance. Unusual disease outbreaks must be recognized quickly, so that a rapid response is possible. Health care workers in clinics, hospitals and private practice must know how to identify such outbreaks and be ready and able to pass their information rapidly to city, state and national authorities.

This kind of preparedness would also help to prevent unintentional outbreaks of disease. Because infected passengers can travel the world in less time than it takes for a disease to incubate, it is crucial, for the national interest as well as for humanitarian reasons, to improve disease surveillance overseas. The United States welcomes 50 million visitors every year and imports $40 billion worth of food. Disease cannot be stopped at the border. The United States must act internationally as well as nationally.

Because biological security would offer protection against both natural and nefarious transmission of disease, a sound policy would directly benefit society even if no attack ever happened. Effective biological security requires that we fit the cure to the disease.