BiodefenseNew book argues for change in biodefense policy

Published 13 November 2009

The 2001 anthrax-letter mailings following presented Americans with an unsettling possibility: What if the resources spent to safeguard American citizens against terrorism have only made them more vulnerable?

Biological warfare has shaped human conflict throughout history, but the anthrax-letter mailings following the 9/ 11 terrorist attacks presented Americans with an unsettling possibility: What if the resources spent to safeguard American citizens against terrorism have only made them more vulnerable?

With their new book, Breeding Bio Insecurity: How U.S. Biodefense is Exporting Fear, Globalizing Risk, and Making Us All Less Secure, Edward Sylvester, an Arizona State University journalism professor, and Lynn Klotz, a senior science fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, investigate the implications of costly, complex, and secretive U.S. biodefense policy.

Danielle Kuffler writes that the book, released in October, offers readers facts and figures regarding the U.S. government’s biodefense policy, and compels policymakers to justify spending and actions. The authors argue that the greatest external threat facing the U.S. comes from rogue nations conducting secret research rather than hypothetical scenarios in which people with basic skills weaponize deadly biomaterials.

We have an urgent message that everyone needs to hear,” says Sylvester, who teaches science writing, news writing, reporting, and editing courses at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Sylvester, who previously co-authored The Gene Age with Klotz, says, “‘Bio Insecurity’ started out as a series of conversations with Lynn, a scientist who is an expert in the field of biological security issues and one of my oldest friends. We became increasingly concerned that the government was taking the wrong direction in preparing against possible bioterrorism attacks in the years after Sept. 11. Terrorists are best known for stealing what they use to kill, everything from rifles to jetliners,” says Sylvester. “The only realistic way for terrorists to get their hands on highly developed pathogen stocks to make such weapons is by stealing them, and the government was making that more likely by funding research into those pathogens at a rapidly increasing number of places around the country.”

The anthrax used against American citizens in the attacks after 9/11 was almost certainly stolen from Fort Detrick in Maryland, he notes. “It was the extremely lethal Ames strain, cultured by well-trained scientists. It couldn’t have been grown from a soil sample in someone’s basement lab or a cave somewhere,” Sylvester says.

The number of high bio-security labs in the country has tripled in the last several years. The expansion of the biodefense program after 9/11 and its clandestine nature make the centers more susceptible to lethal accidents or theft. The book asserts that the only way to truly defend the country from bioterrorism is through multilateral activities, such as treaties, and international cooperation on defenses against all diseases.

The future potential for biowarfare in the absence of such concerted efforts is truly ominous, Sylvester says. “When you realize the propensity of countries to bring whatever is most powerful into warfare and you combine that with the stunning possibilities for manipulating the living world, you enter a whole new world of dark possibilities,” he says.