Published December 21, 2011
The U.S. government’s desire to stifle sharing of research on how to morph bird flu into human pandemics has ruffled some feathers.
The government is quite naturally concerned that if terrorists get access to this scientific information, they might use it forge new bio-weapons. Yet some in the scientific community worry that, by hampering the sharing of new knowledge, the government will slow development of medical countermeasures that would be needed if a pandemic broke out.
The concern on both sides is legitimate.
It would be a grave mistake to ignore the dangers of bio-terrorism. Consider the findings of the 2008 Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism. Its report, “World at Risk,” rated the threat of bio-terrorism as high. It’s two co-chairmen—former senators Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and Jim Talent (R-Mo.)—gave the federal government a failing grade in preparedness.
Naturally, medical preparedness experts want to shift the scientific community into overdrive to develop ways to prevent, provided early warning of, and respond to pandemics.
A little history may help us gain perspective. The 1918 “Spanish flu” claimed at least 50 million lives—and perhaps twice that many—worldwide. In the U.S., more than a half million dies, making it the deadliest pandemic in our history. But it was certainly not the last. The 1958 influenza killed about 70,000 Americans. Ten years later, another influenza killed an estimated 34,000.
Pandemics can be the mother of all public health crises.
The term pandemic refers to the scale of the spread of an infectious disease—it’s one that goes global. The severity and means of transmission of pandemic diseases can vary greatly. Some diseases, for example, may spread rapidly but result in low mortality rates. Others, which represent new strains of a disease (resulting from natural genetic mutations or a biological weapon), may be highly lethal. Typically, the most lethal are those for which humans lack natural immunity and suitable medical countermeasures.
Sickness and death, though the primary issues arising from a pandemic, are not the only problems. Secondary problems caused by disruptions could be worse—people too sick to stock food in the stores, drive fuel to gas stations, place cash in ATMs.
Public safety and health assistance might also be an issue. Police and medical personnel may be overwhelmed by the sheer number of those needing help. They themselves may fall ill or have to stay at home tending to sick loved ones.
The reality is that we probably won’t find a balance between secrecy and sharing that makes everybody happy. But we must continually strive to get the balance right.
And whether we get the balance right or wrong, we must recognize the fact that we need to get ready for the next pandemic—be it naturally-occurring or terrorist-created.
Early warning and health monitoring are key to effective disease detection. Effective public health measures must be ready to put in place to help halt the spread of disease. Medical countermeasures will be needed including vaccines (immunizations that stimulate natural immunity to diseases), prophylactics (means to prevent transmission of the disease, such as wearing a mask), and therapeutics (means to cure or mitigate the effects of disease or its contagious properties).
In addition to medical support activities, pandemics require significant logistical support to deliver goods and services. Requirements for mortuary assistance could be dramatic as the number of dead increases. Business continuity and disaster planning will be vital to limiting economic disruption.
While the scientists and government officials continue to bicker over the rules, the rest of us need get busy and get ready.
James Jay Carafano is Director of The Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies.