It’s become commonplace to suggest in the media (as New Scientist did not long ago) that “it’s only a matter of time before bioterrorists strike.” But as The New York Times reported last May, they already have-and no one noticed. The Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo launched at least nine biological attacks in the early 1990s, using either anthrax spores or the microbe that causes botulism; all such efforts failed. Smallpox and anthrax are legitimate concerns, but Aum Shinrikyo’s difficulties underscore an often-overlooked point-bioweapons are difficult to make, even more difficult to deploy, and much more unpredictable than a bomb. Furthermore, laboratory strains of viruses and bacteria are often coddled in ideal culture conditions, but may not be so robust in the real world.
Yet the “threat industry,” as Zinder calls it, used fear to distort our policy priorities. I asked C. J. Peters to give me a quick-and-dirty estimate of total global human fatalities attributable to ebola, Lassa, and other hemorrhagic viruses each year; his conservative educated guess was around 6,000, though possibly 10 times as high. By contrast, 3 million people perished from tuberculosis and perhaps 2.7 million from malaria in 1997, according to World Health Organization statistics; 2 million children die from enteric diseases each year, 2 million die from respiratory infections, and more than 800,000 kids under 5 die from measles. (All those illnesses, by the way, are treatable and in some cases preventable.) Ebola, the Hot Zone virus, claims approximately 25 lives a year.
Goaded by the merchants of fear, the Clinton administration has requested $300 million in next year’s budget to begin stockpiling antibiotics, step up vaccine research and train state and local authorities to deal with a chemical or biological weapons attack.
I like roller coasters as much as the next guy, but the vicarious pleasure of fear belongs in the province of entertainment, not public policy. The devils we already know-TB, malaria, measles and so on-have exacted many orders of magnitude more human suffering and mortality than the devil we have yet to see. Instead of spending countless millions on antibiotics and vaccines that might never be used, I’d like to see the government spend that money on development of better vaccines for common diseases and reforms of the economics that cripple drug development and distribution for the developing world.