Jewish World Review August 16, 2002 / 8 Elul, 5762
Drs. Michael A. Glueck & Robert J. Cihak
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Those who believe that human wisdom can bring about human salvation would do well to ponder one aspect of the relationship between human beings and the bacteria and viruses that, since before recorded history, have killed and tormented us.
That aspect is called germ warfare.
Of course, the practice is nothing new. The Romans used to catapult the bodies of disease victims into cities under siege. But only in the 20th century - and the 21st - did it become possible to design the micro-organisms that, unchecked, could wreak unprecedented destruction.
We recently attended the annual meeting of Doctors for Disaster Preparedness (DDP) in Colorado Springs. There, Dr. Lowell Wood of the University of California's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Livermore CA, convinced us that the biowar threat is more significant than we described only last month .
Dr. Wood, a physicist and long time associate of Edward Teller, confirmed earlier information about Soviet efforts to weaponize smallpox - efforts that may well lead to future catastrophes.
The tale is chilling. As Ken Abilek, a defector from the Soviet Union testified to the US Congress: "I developed biological weapons for the Soviet Union for nearly twenty years, until my defection in 1992." When he left the Russian biological warfare program, he had been serving as First Deputy Director of Biopreparat, the civilian arm of the biological weapons program. "This comprised over half of the entire program's personnel and facilities. At that time, I was responsible for approximately 32,000 employees and 40 facilities."
These facilities included Soviet factories designed to breed and produce smallpox virus, plus anthrax germs and other disease-causing biological agents. The program stockpiled "dozens of tons of smallpox and plague" according to Abilek.
Abilek also testified "After the Soviet Union became a party to the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, internal debate ensued about the fate of the existing biological weapons program. The end result was that the program was not dismantled, but further intensified." So much for treaties.
In addition, by splicing genes into a pox virus, scientists have produced a genetically-altered virus strain that masquerades as a completely different germ to make it more destructive than ever before. This fools the body's immune system into ignoring the pox virus itself; while your immune system is diverted and fights a nonexistent threat, the virus attacks your body elsewhere.
There's no way to exclude the possibility that some of these "new and improved" agents could be in the hands of terrorist organizations right now.
What to do? Sen. (and Doctor) Bill Frist (R-TN) in his Aug. 10 New York Times commentary article agrees with our position on smallpox vaccine for the general public when he writes: "We should allow every American to make an informed choice as to whether to be vaccinated."
We need to go much farther in defending ourselves. For example, we must develop and place real-time systems to detect an attack while it's underway, before people start getting sick. Detection devices must be positioned at likely sites, especially where large numbers of people congregate: airports, sports stadiums, etc.
As with other defenses, germ warfare defenses must be tested under realistic scenarios. They must also be open to independent review and must be upgraded as technology advances. The existing small stocks of available treatments for smallpox and complications of vaccination, such as vaccinia immune globulin (VIG), must be expanded. Further, we must complete human testing and start stockpiling new pan-Orthopoxviridae antiviral medicines which fight all known pox viruses.
Obviously, we need intensive research into better ways of preventing and treating infections, not only with smallpox but with dozens of other germs which could be used in attacks.
For example, the smallpox genome has been figured out. This will aid in creation of new vaccines. These new vaccines should be more effective and have fewer complications than existing vaccines.
In short, our research work needs to catch up with existing and possible threats as quickly as possible.
Why? To provide for the common defense, of course.
But more is involved. Given the rapidity with which such plagues can spread in the modern world, our self-defense also defends others around the world by stopping germ warfare attack here, before they spread elsewhere.
No, human wisdom can't bring about human salvation. But let's be smart
enough to deal with this and other man-made plagues ahead of time. And
let's do it for all of us.
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08/02/02: Medicine, crime and canines