Global Nature of Terrorism Drives Biosurveillance

WASHINGTON, Oct. 27, 2011 — The glob­al nature of ter­ror­ism and the grow­ing poten­tial of nations and indi­vid­u­als to acquire weapons of mass destruc­tion dri­ve the Defense Department’s effort to counter these threats, the assis­tant sec­re­tary of defense for nuclear, chem­i­cal and bio­log­i­cal defense pro­grams said today.

Under high mag­ni­fi­ca­tion, this 2002 scan­ning elec­tron micro­graph shows spores from a strain of anthrax.
Pho­to cour­tesy of The Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion
Click to enlarge

Andrew C. Weber said DOD pro­grams tar­get nuclear deter­rence, seek out ear­ly warn­ing for infec­tious dis­eases, and bol­ster the abil­i­ty of U.S. part­ners around the world to pre­vent, pre­pare for and respond to events involv­ing WMD. “Our nation­al secu­ri­ty strat­e­gy makes pre­vent­ing and prepar­ing for the pos­si­bil­i­ty that ter­ror­ist groups would acquire weapons of mass destruc­tion, whether it be bio­log­i­cal weapons or nuclear weapons, our first pri­or­i­ty,” Weber said dur­ing an inter­view here with Amer­i­can Forces Press Ser­vice and the Pen­ta­gon Channel. 

The 2001 ter­ror­ist attacks on New York, Penn­syl­va­nia and the Pen­ta­gon drove home the glob­al nature of ter­ror­ism, the assis­tant sec­re­tary said. 

Lat­er that year, he said, a series of anthrax attacks in the Unit­ed States caused defense offi­cials “to focus more atten­tion on the pos­si­bil­i­ty that ter­ror­ist groups would acquire bio­log­i­cal or nuclear weapons and use them against cities here or around the world.” 

Since 9/11, he added, the Defense Depart­ment has broad­ly improved its response to ter­ror­ist nuclear, chem­i­cal and espe­cial­ly bio­log­i­cal threats, which can be acces­si­ble to small groups, ter­ror cells and even individuals. 

“This is why it’s so dif­fi­cult to dis­rupt and to learn about these types of attacks while they’re being planned,” Weber said, “so we need to be very prepared.” 

Amer­i­can forces are now vac­ci­nat­ed against anthrax and small­pox, he said, and the depart­ment has stock­piled antibi­otics against poten­tial bio­log­i­cal attacks. 

“In a sense, we have tak­en parts of the bio­log­i­cal threat off the table,” Weber said, “by improv­ing our capa­bil­i­ty for med­ical coun­ter­mea­sures and ear­ly warn­ing and surveillance.” 

To keep ter­ror­ist groups from get­ting access to mate­ri­als need­ed to con­struct bio­log­i­cal weapons, he said, DOD has helped strength­en biose­cu­ri­ty at lab­o­ra­to­ries in the Unit­ed States. 

“We also have launched a pro­gram work­ing with part­ners around the world to make sure pub­lic health and vet­eri­nary lab­o­ra­to­ries that have dan­ger­ous pathogen strains that cause dis­eases like anthrax and ebo­la are bet­ter secured,” the assis­tant sec­re­tary said. 

Some kinds of bio­log­i­cal attacks by ter­ror­ists, he said, could look at first just like nat­ur­al dis­ease outbreaks. 

“We might not know about it until peo­ple or even ani­mals show up sick or start dying,” he said, “so the best thing you can do [is] to have a glob­al ear­ly warn­ing sys­tem for bio­log­i­cal attacks, whether they are delib­er­ate or natural.” 

The Defense Depart­ment has sev­er­al pro­grams that involve glob­al bio­sur­veil­lance, Weber said, includ­ing the Glob­al Emerg­ing Infec­tions Sur­veil­lance and Response Sys­tem, or GEIS, a divi­sion of the Armed Forces Health Sur­veil­lance Center. 

For 50 years, he said, DOD has had a net­work of bio­med­ical lab­o­ra­to­ries in coun­tries around the world that are part of this system. 

The lab­o­ra­to­ries allow DOD sci­en­tists to devel­op drugs for rare dis­eases that are not endem­ic in the Unit­ed States but that may be in coun­tries where U.S. forces are deployed, Weber said. 

“They also give us a good plat­form,” he added, “for enhanc­ing region­al part­ner capac­i­ty to detect and mon­i­tor and respond to infec­tious dis­ease outbreaks.” 

Humans today inhab­it an inter­con­nect­ed world,” Weber said, so a dis­ease out­break any­where on the plan­et is a poten­tial glob­al threat. 

“That’s why we need to work with our part­ners to have a glob­al sys­tem for ear­ly warn­ing,” he said. 

Ear­ly warn­ing sys­tems for dis­eases, based on good lab­o­ra­to­ry diag­nos­tics and infor­ma­tion sys­tems for track­ing sick peo­ple, he added, are “essen­tial because the most-impor­tant aspect of pre­vent­ing mass casu­al­ties in a bio­log­i­cal attack is time.” 

The Defense Depart­ment has a robust pro­gram to devel­op med­ical coun­ter­mea­sures and rapid diag­nos­tics for a range of spe­cif­ic bio­log­i­cal threats, Weber said, that ter­ror­ist groups and coun­tries like North Korea are pursuing. 

Weber said DOD works close­ly with the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion in Atlanta, and with the World Health Orga­ni­za­tion, which has glob­al respon­si­bil­i­ties under the Unit­ed Nations for improv­ing the world’s capa­bil­i­ty to respond to infec­tious dis­ease out­breaks and work­ing with health author­i­ties world­wide in the event of an out­break or attack. 

“The Depart­ment of Defense has a liai­son offi­cer assigned to WHO Head­quar­ters,” he said, “and recent­ly the U.S. gov­ern­ment signed an agree­ment with WHO [to fund] some efforts to enhance capa­bil­i­ties around the world to mon­i­tor infec­tious diseases.” 

In coun­ter­ing future bio­log­i­cal threats, the assis­tant sec­re­tary said, research and devel­op­ment plays an impor­tant role. 

“With the rev­o­lu­tion in biotech­nol­o­gy … the range of threats is poten­tial­ly infi­nite,” Weber said, “so we need a rapid response capa­bil­i­ty after expo­sure, once we iden­ti­fy what is caus­ing the dis­ease, to devel­op a drug quick­ly, with­in weeks or days, rather than the years … it takes now.” 

The Defense Depart­ment has its own bio­log­i­cal research lab­o­ra­to­ries, he said, that work on devel­op­ing med­ical prod­ucts and it also works with indus­tri­al and aca­d­e­m­ic part­ners around the world. 

“Agen­cies like DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] and the Defense Threat Reduc­tion Agency have been very active in fund­ing biode­fense research,” Weber said. 

The focus, he said, is on find­ing rapid ways to respond to a bio­log­i­cal attack from an unknown agent, quick­ly char­ac­ter­ize it and devel­op a countermeasure. 

“Rather than hav­ing a drug or a vac­cine for every poten­tial [threat],” Weber said, “we need a capa­bil­i­ty to respond quick­ly, to be able to char­ac­ter­ize what is caus­ing ill­ness, and then to devel­op as quick­ly as pos­si­ble a med­ical coun­ter­mea­sure to save lives.” 

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs) 

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