On September 18th, 2001, just one week after the attacks on The World Trade Center and the Pentagon, five letters laced with anthrax were sent to multiple news organizations. Three weeks later, two senators were sent similar packages. All in all, five people died. It took 7 years before the FBI found the perpetrator. This isn’t the scariest part however. That dubious honor goes to this statement, written in the LA Times (emphasis added):
“The FBI is increasingly convinced that the person behind the recent anthrax attacks is a lone wolf within the United States who has … laboratory equipment easily obtained for as little as $2,500 to produce high-quality anthrax.”
-LA Times, November 10th, 2001
For some perspective, that means that for the price of this coffee machine, one bad actor can cause mass panic. It is also important to note that this was pre-CRISPR, so the cost now is likely even lower. You would think that after this crisis, Congress and the military would take bio-terrorism seriously. And initially, they did. Congress passed the Project Bioshield Act and increased bio-terrorism related funding for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
However, the Bioshield act only provided authorization to spend “$5.6 billion… for the government to purchase and stockpile vaccines and drugs to fight anthrax, smallpox and other potential agents of bio-terror.” (Src.) It does not provide support for the development of “surge capacity,” which would allow the healthcare system to quickly grow in times of great demand. It does not provide for ramping up state testing capacity in the event of a large outbreak. And perhaps most importantly, it does not provide any support after the initial 10-year funding period.
In June of 2001, a smallpox outbreak occurs in Oklahoma City. 13 days later, 25 states and 15 countries have been infected. Over 15,000 people died. This was the premise of Dark Winter, a tabletop simulation that explored what would happen in the event of a bio-terrorism attack. Smallpox was the first disease to be eradicated, and due to its eradication, populations are no longer vaccinated against smallpox and are completely susceptible to outbreak. In the event of a large outbreak, it would take many weeks for the U.S to vaccinate every citizen in the country.
During that time, many will die, and hospitals will likely be overwhelmed. As we have seen with COVID-19, a small outbreak in a city can quickly become a pandemic. And the threat need not be terrorists intending to do harm. In 2017, researchers at the University of Alberta recreated horsepox, a distant cousin of smallpox. It is not hard to imagine, then, a scenario in which researchers synthesize smallpox for testing purposes, which then escapes through mismanagement or incompetence. Tom Inglesby, one of the researchers who worked on Dark Winter, has stated that the lack of international testing standards for eradicated diseases leads to an increased risk of bio-terrorism. And the same year that horsepox was synthesized in Canada, President Trump proposed in his budget cutting funding for the following:
- The Office of Public Health and Preparedness by 9%
- The National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases by 11%
- The NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases by 18%
In addition, as of April 15th, Trump declared he would be suspending funding to the WHO for at least 60 days, pending a review of their response to COVID-19. Not only will this reduce the world’s ability to defend against this pandemic, but it also undercuts any preparation for bio-terrorist threats being done on the international stage. Unfortunately, it appears the government is doing little to protect the public from one of the largest dangers of our time. So what can we do?
- Lobby our congresspeople to increase funding for the CDC, NIH, and the Office of Public Health and Preparedness, specifically for bio-terrorism prevention and threat response.
- Ask our representatives to support state labs and hospitals, which will no doubt be vital in the case of a local outbreak.
- Become educated about bio-terrorism. Perhaps learn about Dark Winter and other exercises done by the Center for Health Security.
And most importantly,
4. On November 3rd, vote. Our democracy depends on informed citizens like us putting representatives in office that will make sound, informed decisions.
In May of 2018, 9 “players” participated in another tabletop exercise hosted by the same organization that spawned Dark Winter. This time, the threat was a bio-engineered para-influenza virus named “CladeX”.
The similarity between the findings of Dark Winter and CladeX are chilling. Both state that the U.S needs a more robust healthcare system. Both state that the U.S’s national security community needs to prepare for epidemics. After reading both documents, it seemed as if we had learned nothing. Let us hope that this great crisis forces the citizens, the politicians, and the policy-makers of the United States to prepare for the bio-terrorist threats of the future.