Just a few individuals with specialized scientific skills and access to a laboratory could inexpensively and easily produce a panoply of lethal biological weapons that might seriously threaten the U.S. population. Moreover, they could manufacture such biological agents with commercially available equipment—that is, equipment that could also be used to make chemicals, pharmaceuticals, foods, or beer—and therefore remain inconspicuous.
The attacks of September 11 and the release of anthrax spores revealed enormous vulnerabilities in the U.S. public-health infrastructure and suggested similar vulnerabilities in the agricultural infrastructure as well. The traditional public health response—surveillance (intelligence), prevention, detection, response, recovery, and attribution—is the paradigm for the national response not only to all forms of terrorism but also to emerging infectious diseases. Thus, investments in research on bioterrorism will have enormous potential for application in the detection, prevention, and treatment of emerging infectious diseases that also are unpredictable and against which we must be prepared.
The deciphering of the human genome sequence and the complete elucidation of numerous pathogen genomes, our rapidly increasing understanding of the molecular mechanisms of pathogenesis and of immune responses, and new strategies for designing drugs and vaccines all offer unprecedented opportunities to use science to counter bioterrorist threats. But these same developments also allow science to be misused to create new agents of mass destruction. Hence the effort to confront bioterrorism must be a global one.
First, new tools for the surveillance, detection, and diagnosis of bioterrorist threat agents should be developed. Knowledge of the genome sequences of major pathogens allows new molecular technologies to be developed for the sensitive detection of pathogens. These technologies offer enormous possibilities for surveillance of infectious agents in our environment, the identification of pathogens, and rapid and accurate diagnoses. For these new technologies to be used effectively to provide early warnings, there is a need to link information from the doctor’s office or the hospital’s emergency room to city and state departments of health, thereby enabling detection of an outbreak and a rational and effective response. These capabilities will be important both for responding to attacks on agricultural systems (animals and crops) and for protecting humans, and they will require careful evaluation and standards. There is an urgent need for an integrated system to protect our food supply from the farm to the dinner table.
To be able to respond to current and future biological threats, we will need to greatly expand research programs aimed at increasing our knowledge of the pathogenesis of and immune responses to biological infectious agents. The recent anthrax attacks revealed how little is known about many potential biological threats in terms of dose, mechanisms of disease production,