examine the issues and focus on the problem of biowarfare and the related, but larger everyday problem of infectious disease. The complacency that is largely born of the era of antibiotics is slowly being rolled back. Already this new awareness has produced a better response to new challenges, such as Severe Acute Repertory Syndrome (SARS). Unquestionably, the CDC reacted in a much more publicly acceptable, professional, and speedy way in response to SARS when it was informed of the outbreak by the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHO, in turn, had picked up from its network what had happened when an infected Chinese gentleman moved into Vietnam with the disease. Clearly, the situation is improving, and people are less complacent.
Ultimately, these efforts are going to cost a lot of money, but I think this kind of expenditure is best viewed as paying insurance premiums. So, why pay insurance premiums? I believe in a defense strongly constructed in breadth and depth and openly declared. I applaud the way that the United States deals with biodefense in this respect. Its approach stands in contrast to the more secretive approach of the United Kingdom. There the view favors keeping plans secret, to be revealed only when necessary in response to an event. Actually I do not want the day of the event to come. I do not want the perpetrator to challenge my defenses. Rather, I believe it is better to show potential perpetrators what they are up against and use this as a deterrent.
Regarding bioweapons, we have no means of retaliation, and possibly no means of attribution. We have not even found the person or persons who sent the anthrax letters. We would not have caught the Rajneeshees had there not been a confession, and had the Aum Shinrikyo not been so inept, we would not have found them either. Defense is the only answer for us, especially since we are not in the business of biological retaliation. If there is a deliberate attack, of course, defense pays enormous dividends. It will ameliorate effects and minimize long-term damage. The defense systems that are proposed at the moment will not give us 100 percent protection, but then again no defensive system is 100 percent effective.
Unlike most other costly defensive or weapons programs, preparedness for bioterrorism will pay dividends everyday because it increases our ability to combat the growing hazards of “ordinary” infectious disease. Therefore, if we can deal with the very unpleasant and highly unlikely problem of weapons, at the same time we will help the people who have real, everyday needs for dealing with infectious diseases. By spending the money in one place, it will flow across to help in several other areas.
This is an area where science and technology will almost certainly prove decisive; in increasing the capability of society to ameliorate the effect of an attack or even to prevent such an attack from taking place by raising the bar of defense so high that adversaries look for more vulnerable targets. Because of the wealth of intellectual capability that India has to offer in the fields of biotechnology, engineering, and information science, prospects are good for creating fruitful partnerships between the United States and India in this sphere of endeavor.
I am not the world’s greatest optimist, but on this occasion, I think that together we have a chance to make a difference where it counts.