WASHINGTON — Advances in technology make the United States more vulnerable to bioterrorism than to nuclear attack, a leading expert in defending against biological weapons said Tuesday.
Dr. Tara O'Toole, deputy director of Johns Hopkins University's Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies, suggested devoting $30 billion over the next 10 years to prepare health-care systems to detect, track, respond and contain epidemics that would be triggered by biological weapons.
The Department of Health and Human Services says it is spending $278 million this fiscal year to prepare for bioterrorism.
"The likelihood of a biological weapon being used is a lot higher than a missile coming across the Pacific," O'Toole said. "And yet we are spending a lot more on missile defense than we are on biological systems."
"A bio Unabomber is perfectly possible, and that threat will grow because of the growing power of biotechnology and genomics," she said in a discussion at the independent Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Spurred by the spread of computers, the Internet and large corporations searching for medical miracles, biotechnical advances are moving much faster than physics did in the 1950s, O'Toole said.
Genetic research to develop new drugs could "create the tools to build a more powerful weapon and virulent bug," she said.
Simple devices such as a nasal spray could spread a deadly disease such as anthrax, underscoring the difficulty of detecting biological weapons before their use.
O'Toole said the United States needs to strengthen its public health and medical care system to deal with biological attacks because this would "probably make ourselves less attractive targets to would-be perpetrators."
A byproduct of such an effort, she said, would be an improvement in the everyday functioning of hospitals and health-care systems because new medical devices and treatments would be developed.
O'Toole recommended a robust research and development program to reduce vulnerability to biological weapons using resources of the departments of Defense and Health and Human Services.
"We've also got to engage the genius of the universities, the pharmaceutical firms and biotechnology companies, who are not now in this game," she said. "They are not running around looking for cures for anthrax. There is no market reason to do so."
The research program should focus on three areas, she recommended:
Developing an automated means to diagnose disease-causing organisms by using microchips.
Producing better vaccines, more vaccines and new antibiotics and particularly anti-viral drugs for likely bioagents.
Enhancing immune response generally "so we can get 'one-bug, one-drug' and see if we can find a more all-purpose way to limit our susceptibility to infectious disease."
Public health experts have warned for several years that bioterrorism, the release of deadly bacteria or viruses, is a growing threat.
While the government knows how to respond to chemical spills or bombings, bioterrorism could be the ultimate sneak attack: no one would know it had happened until sick people began arriving at hospitals.
It's not a theoretical risk. In 1985, a cult sickened 750 people by poisoning salad bars in Oregon with the food-poisoning germ salmonella. In 1995, experts say Japanese doomsday cultists tried but failed to release botulism toxin and anthrax in Tokyo. The same cult later released nerve gas into a subway and killed 12 people and made thousands sick.
On the Net: Center for Strategic and International Studies: www.csis.org