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Scary Near-Miss Shows Bioterrorism Vulnerabilities

Author: Laurie Garrett, Senior Fellow for Global Health
February 16, 2005
Council on Foreign Relations

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Shortly before Christmas, some genetic data was— as a matter of routine— posted with GenBank, a mammoth, publicly accessible computer repository located at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. No special phone calls were made, no alarms sounded. But the GenBank posting looked like the genetic code for a new, manmade killer influenza that was infecting pigs in South Korea. Fingers seemed to point to Pyongyang.

Before you have a heart attack, let me assure you that, two months later, it looks like the nightmare of weaponized super-flu did not happen this time. But the scenario that played out is probably pretty close to what might unfold in a genuine bioterrorism incident, and it reveals critical weaknesses in our global security system— or lack thereof.

In December, somebody from one of South Korea’s veterinary schools did what hundreds of virus-hunters do the world over: he or she e-mailed to GenBank the genetic details of newly identified viruses. In this case, the posting said, six new strains of influenza had been found in local pigs. Each of the strains were genetically manipulated and contained genetic bits of an avian virus unlike those now prompting separate bird flu concerns.

Worse, there were large segments of a flu bug dubbed WSN/33, a human flu virus altered in 1933 in a laboratory by infecting mice, resulting in a strain that kills mouse brain cells. The original 1933 human virus was related to that which caused the 1918 pandemic flu, killing an estimated 50 million people. Nothing even remotely like the WSN/33 flu has circulated in the world since 1956, and this particular WSN-avian flu combination is not known to have ever occurred naturally, so most of the global population would have little or no immunity to the virus. Since neither the particular bird flu strain nor the WSN/33 flu were known to exist outside of laboratories, one Internet journal concluded that “these sequences could represent a military experiment that resulted in an unplanned release. Moreover, at this point, bioterrorism cannot be ruled out.”

The World Health Organization’s (WHO) influenza branch responded later in December, convening a teleconferenced meeting of flu experts to analyze the GenBank information and exchanging a flurry of e-mails. They concluded somebody had made a lab error. On January 27, the South Korean government confirmed a laboratory error had been made and promised to send samples of the six viruses to WHO’s Hong Kong collaborative lab.

But at press time the South Koreans had not sent the promised samples. Internet chatter about possible North (or South) Korean bioweapons experiments persists. This is dangerous.

What happened? Nobody, except perhaps the silent South Koreans, knows for sure. But there are two general hypotheses, WHO says. Someone in the South Korean veterinary lab may have innocently pulled the wrong computer file of genetic sequence data into an e-mailed transmission to GenBank, resulting in the display of this potentially terrible viral code. The lab in question may have contaminated its research samples. Or the South Korean lab is working on a flu vaccine, using the WSN/33 human sequence from 1933 as a basic template and deliberately scrambling it with various animal flus. In such a scenario, the scientists accidentally created these disturbing influenza strains in the lab in their vaccine production effort. I cannot accept the vaccine idea: why in the world would anybody be making a vaccine against a type of human flu that hasn’t circulated on earth for more than 70 years? If lab contamination or data input error are the problem, I am left to fret about a host of recent lab accidents that, in some cases, have allowed dangerous microbes to leak, including SARS and tularemia.

If we are seriously concerned about the possibility that nefarious individuals or groups might make bioweapons using state-of-the-art genetic manipulations, the chain of events leading to recognition that such experiments were under way might look very much like what occurred with these Korean swine strains. The WHO would be under pressure— by international agreement under the Bioweapons Convention of 1972— to definitively prove, or disprove, allegations. Does WHO have sufficient funding, manpower, and clout to do this job at this time? No. The core budget of WHO is a mere $400 million and only two scientists are employed full time to monitor new epidemics and rumors of bioterrorism. An additional handful of full-time staff leads efforts to monitor flu strains around the world.

Many within WHO and the global health community are uncomfortable with the prospect of building a significantly larger bioweapons verification and surveillance program at the Swiss-based United Nations agency, fearing it will undermine the organization’s ability to open doors in its 192 member nations to work on HIV, tuberculosis, measles, and other diseases that, combined, kill tens of millions of people every year. They are right to be worried. We are therefore in a credibility Catch-22: Overemphasis on weapons threats could undermine the credibility of WHO’s primary mission, but no other organization has sufficient credibility worldwide to referee and investigate bioweapons claims. Guy Roberts, head of the U.S. delegation to biological weapons negotiations, publicly confirmed in August that the Bush administration supports WHO’s prime role.

It is likely that future claims will, as was the case in this Korean incident, focus on hotspots of geopolitical tension. In such an environment, even an unproven claim could have serious political consequences. Indeed, one can imagine “evil-doers” deliberately posting false virus information on GenBank in order to discredit a given country or cause unjustified panic. How can we tolerate such imprecision in our post-9/11 world?

I am reminded of a bioweapons meeting I attended in Geneva several years ago during which Pakistan and India exchanged charges that each had released germs aimed at the other’s crops. There was no evidence to support these claims, but the respective countries could make things “true” merely by constant repetition. To this day, there are prominent political figures and news organizations in India that insist the country’s 1994 pneumonic plague outbreak was the result of a genetic engineering experiment carried out in Kazakhstan by the CIA, under the supervision of the American Ambassador to Delhi— a bizarre, patently false concept. A recent poll of African Americans revealed more than half believe HIV is a virus designed by the U.S. government to kill black-skinned people— a sentiment echoed by the recipient of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. Even as I write these words, I worry that my efforts to dismiss the current Korea allegations could backfire, fueling conspiracy fires. Clearly, this is an unacceptable dilemma.

We desperately need timelier, directed means of global— not just American— surveillance and verification against bioterrorism. But investment in poor and middle income countries’ disease surveillance is abysmal-to-nonexistent. Though President Bush’s proposed FY2006 budget would devote $4.2 billion to bioterrorism preparedness, nearly every penny would be spent inside the United States, and the Centers for Disease Control would, overall, take steep cuts. The lion’s share of the funding would go to the National Institutes of Health for research on diagnosis and treatment of likely bioterrorist diseases.

I hope that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who last month called for a “something that even dwarfs the Manhattan project” for bioterrorism, is paying attention. The problem right now is not a few billion dollars worth of fancy technology. It is much more basic than that, costs a lot less to fix, and isn’t inside Fortress America.