Our ability to control dangerous substances, technologies, and research; effectively detect the smuggling of a weapon; and rapidly respond to the outbreak of a disease has strategic importance. Done right, effective oversight, surveillance, and intervention capabilities can add to deterrence. The reason: potential attackers engaged in the most complex and costly forms of terrorism probably have only one chance at success. International cooperation is essential. We cannot contain this threat by ourselves.
While the prospect of a nuclear or bioterrorism is the most deadly threat we potentially face, we must draw the right lessons from the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo and U.S. anthrax attacks. We must also appropriately balance high-consequence/low-probability threats such as nuclear and biological weapons with the high-consequence/higher-probability risk associated with natural disease outbreaks such as SARS or avian flu that can create social and economic ripple effects with national security implications.
Programs such as BioShield, a federally funded initiative to encourage the private sector to develop vaccines for biological agents that are most likely to be converted into weapons, must be subject to serious threat-cost-benefit analysis. Funding directed at security threats is not readily applicable to naturally occurring infectious diseases that are more likely. Efforts to improve biodefense should add to, not subtract from, equally important requirements in public health. By concentrating now on the most likely rather than worst-case scenarios, we can build up surveillance, intervention, preparedness, and planning capabilities that will be vital in any event of mass consequence.
We must also remember that this is a global challenge. Our actions must be consistent with and strengthen international agreements, protocols and cooperation. This is the best way, for example, to thwart the next A.Q Khan, Pakistan’s infamous nuclear technology proliferator.
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