WMD: (Not) An Acronym for Nuclear

Last month I spoke to a biosecurity/biodefense group at the American Association for the Advancement of Science here in Washington DC. I began with this declaration: “We live in a town where many of our senior leaders think WMD is an acronym for nuclear.”

Hyperbole? I think not. Do you know that the legislation that created the WMD Commission did not contain the words biological, biology, bioterrorism, biothreat or any other version of bio? There were plenty of direct references to nuclear issues, but none for bio.

Last week, Michèle Flournoy, the Under Secretary for Policy at DoD spoke at large event hosted by the Center for a New American Security. She said: “”the thing that keeps me awake at night is a nexus between terrorism and weapons of massive destruction” …and… “the possibility that a terrorist organization could either acquire a ready-made weapon or fabricate something improvised that would have a catastrophic effect for us.”

So what must we do? “The only answer to this is prevention, keeping the material out of the hands of the terrorist, so we put enormous focus on this… from the beginning,” said Flournoy.

That is the right answer for the nuclear threat, but the wrong answer for bio.

Secretary Flournoy is a brilliant national security/defense strategist whom I greatly admire and respect, but like too many senior leaders in this town, she appears to misunderstand the difference between nuke and bio.

Bottom line–our national leaders in the executive and legislative branches need to understand the following:

Preventing nuclear terrorism is simple, relatively inexpensive, and possible. I didn’t say easy—but it is simple. Terrorists can’t enrich uranium or produce plutonium. If we locate, lockdown, and eliminate all loose nuclear material, there will be no mushroom clouds over American cities.

However, preventing bioterrorism is complicated, expensive, and most likely, not doable. With the exceptions of smallpox and the 1918-19 influenza strain, all pathogens that could be used as bioweapons exist in nature (except, of course, the pathogens produced through synthetic biology.) You can’t lock them down. Additionally, the technology required to turn these pathogens into aerosol weapons is routinely used in the pharmaceutical and agricultural industries and readily available for purchase on E-Bay. The procedures for weaponizing these pathogens are not easy, but certainly not beyond the reach of well-trained laboratory technicians. And it gets easier every day.

This is why the WMD Commissioners unanimously concluded that bioterrorism is more likely than nuclear terrorism, and they were not talking about a scenario where two dozen would become ill, and five would die (October 2001). They were talking about scenarios where the casualties would be in the tens or hundreds of thousands, with a billion dollars in economic disruption, per event.

So is it hopeless? Absolutely not.

The solution is to push the decimal point to the left. While we have little likelihood of preventing bioterrorism in the 21st century, we can build a response capability that will effectively remove bioterrorism from the category of WMD. People will die, but not in hundreds of thousands, tens of thousands, or even thousands.

If we begin taking the appropriate actions today, we could reduce the casualty figures to a number fewer than what we lose on our highways during a three-day weekend. We can’t remove bioterrorism as a threat, but we can remove it from the category of WMD.

How do we do it?

The Congressional Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism and its follow-on 501(c)3, The WMD Center, have identified six areas of response capabilities that require significant improvements:
• near real-time detection and diagnosis of disease outbreaks,
• situational awareness and effective communication of actionable information,
• rapid development and production of medical countermeasures,
• timely countermeasure distribution and dispensing,
• surge medical care delivery to treat the sick and protect the well,
• environmental cleanup and remediation.

Demonstrated improvements in these six areas, including successful operational testing, will in effect “harden America against bioterrorism” resulting in a significant deterrent effect, but if attacked, these capabilities would reduce casualties below the level of a WMD.

These enhanced capabilities will also serve to protect the American public from natural disease outbreaks, strengthen overall public health and medical care delivery, and help to keep America on the leading edge of the biotechnical revolution, a major economic force of the 21st century.

To read Senator Bob Graham (D-FL) and Jim Talent’s (R-MO) opinions on this subject, see:
Bioterrorism: Redefining Prevention View Article

About biosecureblog

Colonel Randall Larsen, USAF (Ret) -CEO, WMD Center -former Executive Director, Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism -former chairman, Department of Military Strategy and Operations, National War College
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