Our own worst bioenemy
‘Whatever you can say about the Soviet bioweapons scientists,” a Bush administration official once told me, “they never killed anyone.”
We can’t say the same about our bioweapons scientists. Someone, most likely Bruce Ivins, at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Ft. Detrick, Md., turned powdered anthrax spores into a deadly weapon. It’s ironic that the Soviet scientists were making offensive weapons. Our people, since 1969, have worked strictly to defend us.
One of those defenders killed five people, sickened 17 others and plunged the nation into hysteria for weeks in the fall of 2001. After a seven-year investigation by the FBI, the source of the deadly anthrax strain has been identified -- our own biodefense program at Ft. Detrick. That is the real legacy of the FBI investigation.
Since the anthrax-laced letters were mailed in September and October of 2001, U.S. biodefense has blown up out of all proportion to any rational assessment of the bioweapons threat. Earlier this year, an article in the journal Biosecurity and Bioterrorism, analyzing government biodefense spending from 2001 to 2008, stated that $49.66 billion has been allocated for civilian biodefense. According to microbiologist and longtime biodefense critic Richard Ebright of Rutgers University, actual spending is even higher, amounting to $57 billion.
In 2005, he and 757 other microbiologists sent a stinging open letter to Elias Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health, protesting the government’s preoccupation with “priority pathogens” -- germs such as anthrax that could be used in a bioweapons attack. But Zerhouni and Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, would have none of it. In a letter published in the journal Science, they disagreed: “The United States has experienced an anthrax attack, and security experts repeatedly express concern that future attacks with biological weapons are likely, if not inevitable.”
But we didn’t actually experience an anthrax attack. The whole incident amounted to a snake eating its own tail. No ingenious biowarrior from Al Qaeda sent the lethal envelopes through the U.S. postal system. An American scientist did. The FBI and its genetic analyses leave no doubt: Though 16 laboratories had access to the “Ames strain” of anthrax used in the letters, only the samples that came from Ivins’ laboratory at Ft. Detrick matched the genetic fingerprint of the attack strain.
In the sorry aftermath of the anthrax investigation, it’s clear that the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have to rethink the priority-pathogens list, which includes anthrax, smallpox, plague, tularemia, Ebola and other germs that rarely, if ever, threaten American lives. It’s the “non-defense-related” germs that are killing us. Randall Wolcott of the Southwest Regional Wound Care Center points out that 500,000 Americans a year die of biofilm infections -- such as diabetic ulcers -- that are almost impossible to treat by conventional means. That’s almost twice as many as die of cancer.
According to the CDC, infections caused by methicillin-sensitive Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, kill 19,000 people a year. Still, staph itself isn’t considered a priority pathogen, despite the emergence of highly resistant and increasingly virulent strains. Only one of 40 staph toxins is on the priority list.
There’s another problem created by the priority-pathogens list. The ballooning of the biodefense program, according to Ebright, means that about 14,000 individuals are now considered qualified to work with priority pathogens.
It hasn’t always been easy to find qualified people for this research. In the days when the FBI was pursuing former “person of interest” -- and now exonerated -- Steven J. Hatfill, one senior government scientist said of Hatfill’s background, “You take what you can get -- not many people with his abilities show up very often.” So where do 14,000 suddenly qualified biodefense experts come from? And how can they be vetted? As biodefense expert Leonard Cole, author of “The Anthrax Letters,” told me: “There are 15,000 to 16,000 people now working in labs on select agents -- that’s many more possibilities of another bizarre individual doing illicit work.”
The lesson of the anthrax letters isn’t that we’re in danger of a bioweapons attack from terrorists. It’s that U.S. biodefense itself has become a threat: We have met the enemy -- and it is us.
The next administration should pull the plug on the biodefense excesses of the Bush administration and put most of the thousands of microbiologists to work on the germs we really need to worry about.
Wendy Orent is the author of “Plague: The Mysterious Past and Terrifying Future of the World’s Most Dangerous Disease.”