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Grading Bio-Response
By Dave McIntyre, PhD

When the Congressional Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction, Proliferation and Terrorism was established in 2007, members assumed that the greatest threat to the United States was the use of a nuclear weapon on an American city. After interviewing 250 experts, they changed their minds.

Their conclusions, published in the 2008 book World at Risk, was that nuclear weapons remain one of the two "WMD categories that have the greatest potential to kill in the most massive numbers." (p. xv) But "terrorists are more likely to be able to obtain and use a biological weapon than a nuclear weapon" (WMD Center).

After a further year of study, the Commission's Chair and Vice-Chair (Senator Bob Graham and Senator Jim Talent) re-established the program as the private, not-for-profit Bipartisan WMD Terrorism Research Center (WMD Center). Supported by grants from the Skoll Global Threats Fund and the Smith Richardson Foundation, the center has issued a 2011 Bio-Response Report Card evaluating U.S. bio-response capabilities to the threat of bio-terrorism or natural disaster.

It was not a report card anyone would want to take home. Of the 45 categories graded, 15 received an F, 15 received a D, 7 received a C . . . and not 1 received an A. That being said, it was a better report than many expected. And the in-depth analysis provided by the report as a whole (http://www.wmdcenter.org/) suggests some positive trends and several ways to make significant progress with relatively modest efforts.

The report card began by clarifying the threat—which is continuing to evolve, and worsen. Of course, danger from naturally occurring outbreaks is nothing new. The Black Death killed a higher percentage of Europeans than any war in modern history, and the Spanish Influenza of 1918 killed more American soldiers than all of World War I. Nature can kill efficiently and effectively without the help of man.

However, the biotech revolution has spread sophisticated equipment and knowledge far and wide. Non-state actors have clearly announced their intent to use WMD in general, and biological weapons in particular, against the U.S. They may already have the capability to produce sophisticated bio weapons, and ease of production and distribution is growing. Furthermore, because production systems may be easily hidden or disguised, deterring potential enemies from use may be impossible. Consequently, to quote the report, "the primary means of defending the American homeland against bioterrorism is the capability to effectively respond after an attack has occurred" (WMD Center). Thus bio-response is the key to reducing the vulnerability to and consequences from the most likely form of WMD attack.

Next, the report identified eight major capabilities that constitute bio-response.

  • Detection & Diagnosis: recognition of a biological event and identification of the specific agent.
  • Attribution: identification of the source of a biological event.
  • Communication: discerning and sharing essential information among stakeholders and actors.
  • Availability of Medical Countermeasures: provisioning of vaccines, antibiotics, therapeutics, medical devices and diagnostic tools.
  • Development & Approval of New Medical Countermeasures: ability to develop, produce or acquire essential countermeasures.
  • Distributing & Dispensing of Medical Countermeasures: transporting from the Strategic National Stockpile and dispensing to the identified population.
  • Medical Management: aligning resources available with need in order to save as many lives as possible.
  • Environmental Cleanup: remediating a contaminated area to protect health and welfare.

Third, the report clarified the differences in scale of biological events likely to require bio-response.

Obviously the challenge posed to the categories of bio-response by a small event is different from the same type of event on a large scale. Think, for example, of the difference in dealing with the anthrax letters in 2001 versus an anthrax attack that contaminates a city. Additionally, the challenge of responding to a contagious disease (like small pox) is quite different from a non-contagious poison (like Ricin). So the Report Card differentiation of biological events includes small and large events, both contagious and non-contagious.

A drug resistant disease poses a different type of challenge – likely to be even larger on the scale of events. And a global crisis with a contagious disease (presenting in many locations at once and threatening political and economic institutions) occupies the extreme worst end of the scale.

Expressed together, the types of activities required for bio-response and the scale of challenges to these activities describe a matrix (see Figure 1). The report card evaluated each intersection on the matrix, assigned a grade, and then assessed the overall status and trends. The result is a strategic, end-to-end assessment of U.S. bio-response capabilities.

The message of the Report Card is complex and deserves detailed review. But here are some of the major conclusions in brief.

  • For small-scale events, most capabilities have improved and trends are flat or rising.
  • Progress in communications capabilities is striking – even at the most difficult end of the event scale.
  • The process of developing medical countermeasures takes too long, is too expensive, and does not support the response capabilities essential to American bio-preparedness.
  • The assessment for attribution is even worse. We cannot meet the most fundamental expectations of attribution for any level of bio event.
  • U.S. capability to meet bio-challenges is weakest on the most extreme end of the event scale.
  • The report card concludes that addressing the worst events is so technically (and financially) challenging that our limited resources should be invested in improving the middle range challenges: large-scale contagious and non-contagious events.

No doubt many observers expected a report card that failed the entire enterprise, blasted the current administration, and demanded massive new spending. In fact, the report is more balanced and nuanced than that. For example, it concludes with a set of strategic priorities that include: mobilizing a "whole of nation response capability; educating leaders to set better direction and demand accountability; and focusing investment on countermeasures, environmental remediation and bioforensics.

A good report card does more than just grade. It captures the student's strengths, weaknesses, and potential, while suggesting objectively how to best improve overall performance. That's what the WMD Center has achieved with its report card. It is worth a closer look.

About the Author

Dave McIntyre, PhD is VP for Academic Affairs at the National Graduate School, and a Visiting Fellow at both the Homeland Security Institute and the WMD Center. He is co-editor with Bill Hancock of the book Business Continuity and Homeland Security, recently released by Edward Elgar.

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