Pathogen security: the illusion of security in foreign policy and biodefence

The anthrax attack in the US in 2001 brought the threat of bioterrorism to the forefront of our safety concerns both nationally and internationally.  In general, the primary strategy in preventing bioterrorism has focused on ‘pathogen security’ or ‘biosecurity’. There is a fundamental flaw in thinking that biosecurity can be handled/controlled in a manor that mimics the non-proliferation model for the development of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

There is the idea that if pathogens are not secured the terrorists can easily obtain them and build a biological weapon. There is a prevailing belief that pathogen security is a variant on how WMD are handled, monitored and secured. The non-proliferation model is being overly emphasized when dealing with biological weapons.

Non-proliferation of nuclear weapons is easier to control and monitor and has been relatively successful. Plutonium and highly enriched uranium (the materials used to manufacture nuclear WMD) are not naturally occurring. They must be manufactured using conspicuous, extensive, expensive equipment in a large facility with expertise that is not readily available. Existing nuclear material is guarded with loss prevention as a high priority (so called “guns, guards, and gates”.)

In reality biologic pathogens such as salmonella, and avian flu virus are naturally occurring and readily available outside of a secured facility or lab. The expertise and technology necessary to disseminate the pathogen is inexpensive and technically rather simple to construct. To think that locking up the labs and facilities that contain biopathogens will prevent a bioterrorism attack is an ‘illusion of security’.

Biodefence can include pathogen security, but a comprehensive, broader approach must be pursued and emphasized. Enhanced threat awareness, bio-surveillance and early warning detection must be in place universally. Response to an incident must be swift and calculated. Treatments must be developed and readily available. Recovery from an event must be rapid. International communication with shared research is paramount. Global interdependence on health issues is the reality as globalization decreases the time it takes for a disease to travel. Sharing potential pathogen samples so that vaccines can be developed is essential. *

Preparedness for an attack with a strong unified government would be a disincentive for an attack according to Danzig.2   Biodefence must have an international and multilevel approach to be effective. It cannot rely on non-proliferation alone. Although this has been relatively effective against nuclear proliferation, it cannot be applied to bioterrorism because the nature and requirements of the two are drastically different.


*In 2006 the Indonesian government stopped sharing avian flu virus samples with the WHO (the WHO would normally get pharmaceutical companies to make the vaccines.) They felt that they could not afford the vaccines and only rich countries would have them available in the event of an outbreak. The Indonesians claim that they have intellectual property rights over the virus samples and are demanding access to any drugs or vaccines created using the samples. Other countries are supporting the Indonesians and to date this has not been resolved.1

Pathogen security: the illusion of security in foreign policy and biodefence                                                                                                           Marc L. Ostfield                                                                                                                                       U.S. Department of State                                                                                                                       Office if International Health and Biodefence                                                                                 Washington, DC 20520

1 Feldbaum, Harley (April, 2009) U.S. Global Health and National Security Policy.  Center for Strategic & International Studies.

 2Danzig, R. (2003) Catastrophic Bioterrorism – What Is to Be Done? Center for Technology and National Security Policy, National Defense University, Washington, DC.

–Susan Tierney–



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