The Threat of Biological Weapons Must Be Addressed

Editor's Note: Joshua Lederberg, chairman of The Scientist's Editorial Advisory Board, edited the book Biological Weapons: Limiting the Threat, to be published this spring (May 1999) by The MIT Press. The following article, adapted from the book's epilogue, is printed with permission of The MIT Press. As the works for Biological Weapons: Limiting the Threat were being assembled, our policy perspectives were informed by new happenings and governmental reactions. Saddam Hussein renewed his h

Joshua Lederberg
Mar 14, 1999

Editor's Note: Joshua Lederberg, chairman of The Scientist's Editorial Advisory Board, edited the book Biological Weapons: Limiting the Threat, to be published this spring (May 1999) by The MIT Press. The following article, adapted from the book's epilogue, is printed with permission of The MIT Press.

As the works for Biological Weapons: Limiting the Threat were being assembled, our policy perspectives were informed by new happenings and governmental reactions. Saddam Hussein renewed his harassment of the United Nations inspectors seeking closure on Iraq's programs in biological weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. For the nth time, final rupture seemed imminent, and with it the threat of U.S. cruise missile attacks on relevant Iraqi facilities. That escalation might be a deterrent/warning, or it might provoke unreasoned responses, including the use of biological weapons if the regime inferred it had nothing more to lose.

The dilemma persists how to invoke punishment on deviant autocrats without injuring captive populations even more severely. Nor is this [book] the place to look beyond violence to the causes of belligerency. At one level, we knew the danger that violence will beget violence. At another, the history of nations has shown how the most violent exemplars, like Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, could eventually be pacified (and become models of pacific constraint and economic success)--at terrible cost to themselves and others. Democracies who regard themselves as humane will be torn, and sometimes self-deterred by such considerations, probably more than by threats of forceful retaliation. Saddam may not know this well enough to refrain from launching terrorist reactions; and there is always the cloak of fringe zealots acting on their own initiative.

This is the story line for the vicious bomb attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania on Aug. 8, 1998, attributed to Usama bin Ladin. Bernard Lewis1 has retrieved bin Ladin's formal declaration of war against the United States and its citizens from the Arabic press. Bin Ladin's aim is the expulsion of U.S. interests from the holy Arabian peninsula. In the process, hundreds of native Africans were injured or killed. This may go even beyond casual disregard of uninvolved bystanders--it conveys the message that diplomatic relations of any country with the United States entail a lethal liability.

This atmosphere has not triggered acute defensive precautionary mobilization beyond routine travel advisories. However, past months have witnessed a growing concern expressed in public pronouncements and official actions. Secretary William Cohen's foreword [to this book]2 is also reflected in President Bill Clinton's speech on May 22, 1998, in Annapolis, Md., when he discussed " ... three new initiatives--the first broadly directed at combating terrorism, the other two addressing two potential threats from terrorists and hostile nations: attacks on our computer networks and other critical systems upon which our society depends, and attacks using biological weapons. ... We will work to upgrade our public health systems for detection and warning, to aid our preparedness against terrorism, and to help us cope with infectious diseases that arise in nature. We will train and equip local authorities throughout the nation to deal with an emergency involving weapons of mass destruction, creating stockpiles of medicines and vaccines to protect our civilian population against the kind of biological agents our adversaries are most likely to obtain or develop. And we will pursue research and development to create the next generation of vaccines, medicines, and diagnostic tools. The Human Genome Project will be very, very important in this regard. And again, it will aid us also in fighting infectious diseases. To make these three initiatives work, we must have the concerted efforts of a whole range of federal agencies--from the Armed Forces to law enforcement to intelligence to public health. I am appointing a National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counterterrorism, to bring the full force of all our resources to bear swiftly and effectively."

These decisions are reflected in a Presidential Decision Directive (PDD-62), and the appointment of Richard Clarke of the National Security Council as the coordinator. Interagency discussions with regard to allocation of responsibility and budget are continuing. Significant announcements include the assignment of backup responsibilities to the National Guard.2 The U.S. Atlantic Command (ACOM) already bears operational responsibility for "Homeland Defense," a theme much discussed in recent months, and it may be given further tasks in this arena. Not least is planning for the security of our ports of embarkation, the logistic chokepoints for maritime buildup and supply of any U.S. force projection overseas.

Then the Department of Justice will take over the training of local emergency responders to function safely and effectively in contaminated environments. Acting on its own, and impelled by past experiences like the attack on the World Trade Towers in 1993, New York City has already mounted an extensive program that will be a model for others.3 In addition, the FBI will establish a National Domestic Preparedness Office--a canonical shopping window for inquiries and appeals from local officials otherwise perplexed about where to turn for assistance from the complex federal establishment. These proposals go a long way to meeting the criteria set out in a thoughtful paper by three recent members of the Clinton administration: Ashton Carter, John Deutch, and Philip Zelikow.4 They remark, however, " ... one should not place faith in czars. Real power still resides in the executive departments that have people, equipment, money, and the capacity to get things done." These requirements have been elaborated in further detail by Richard Falkenrath and his colleagues.5

Efforts to engage the Congress have been partly successful, but predictably face some resistance as "budget-busting" when incremental funding is sought. While there is substantial verbal endorsement of the priority that should be assigned to domestic biodefense as an element of national security, it still fares poorly in competition with the long-established traditional military concerns, the end of the Cold War notwithstanding.

The R&D requirements for biodefense are barely touched upon in Biological Weapons. They range from the most far-reaching innovations that will be called upon to deal with exotic viral infections to banal items like inexpensive, citizen-adapted protective masks. Protocols for the management of infectious disease were not designed nor validated for mass casualty settings where, for example, available antibiotics are in short supply and rational schemes for extending those supplies will be desperately sought. Nor have our Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other regulatory and ethical regimes been confronted with emergent crises where thousands or millions of lives may be at stake, awaiting resolution of bureaucratic contradictions. Some of these matters have been given initial study by the Institute of Medicine.6

The delegation of responsibility to public authorities, and if so which ones, should be deliberated during times of peace, and informed consent conferred or denied; this cannot be achieved in the midst of crisis.

Joshua Lederberg, with U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala (left) and U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno.
Among the triumphs of medical science and international cooperation in this century has been the global eradication of smallpox. Once among the major killers of humankind, smallpox has been eliminated from circulation by concerted programs of vaccination. The last authenticated case of naturally spread disease occurred in 1977; and the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared eradication in 1979. Since then, accepted doctrine and general practice has been the abandonment of routine vaccination: The scourge had been lifted, and no further precautions were needed. In consequence we now have, globally, a whole generation of humans with no history of exposure either to smallpox virus or to the protective vaccine. This is unprecedented in human experience, though it may be likened to the condition of Western Hemisphere natives prior to the European exploration and conquest. With recent rumor and defectors' reports of unabated experimentation with smallpox as a weapon, in defiance of the biological weapons treaty, anxieties about our consequent vulnerability have been heightened. Outbreaks have happened before, and they could probably be contained--but only if vaccine stocks (now all but depleted) are refreshed and prepositioned.7 This would not be very expensive; equally valuable and an important complement would be antiviral medication if that could materialize with renewed R&D.

My personal concern about the blight of biological weaponry and the subversion of medical technology to the intentional spread of plagues goes back many years. In 1970 I had occasion to address the United Nations Committee on Disarmament in Geneva, focused on arms control as an important remedial device.8 The treaty has been in place since 1975; it is now deeply embedded in the law of nations. The issue now is its enforcement, which depends on the institutionalized acknowledgment of and respect for that law, which is not to hide the problems of focusing on a weapon rather than on what is being fought over. A biological weapon is a special weapon, with implications for civility of life that set it apart from many other kinds of violence. Most of the other arguments remain hardly altered, except for the burgeoning realization of what biotechnology could bring us, for good or for evil.

Joshua Lederberg is Raymond and Beverly Sackler Foundation Scholar at Rockefeller University in New York City.

  • B. Lewis, "License to kill: Usama bin Ladin's declaration of Jihad," Foreign Affairs, 77[6]:14-9, November-December 1998.

  • W. Cohen, foreword to Biological Weapons: Limiting the Threat, Cambridge, Mass., The MIT Press, May 1999.

  • R.A. Falkenrath et al., "America's Achilles' heel: nuclear, biological, and chemical terrorism and covert attack," BCSIA Studies in International Security, Cambridge, Mass., The MIT Press, 1998.

  • J. Miller and W.J. Broad, "New York girding for grim fear: deadly germ attack by terrorists," The New York Times, June 19, 1998.

  • A. Carter et al., "Catastrophic terrorism: tackling the new danger," Foreign Affairs, 77[6]: 80-94, November-December 1998.

  • Institute of Medicine, Chemical and Biological Terrorism: Research and Development to Improve Civilian Medical Response, Washington, D.C., National Research Council, 1999.

  • J.G. Breman, D.A. Henderson, "Poxvirus dilemmas--monkeypox, smallpox, and biologic terrorism," New England Journal of Medicine, 339:556-9, Aug. 20, 1998.

  • J. Lederberg, "Address to conference of the committee on disarmament, August 5, 1970," Congressional Record, E-8123-4, 1970.

    For advance orders for Biological Weapons: Limiting the Threat, call toll-free (800) 356-0343, or go to The MIT Press Web site (mitpress.mit.edu).