Position: Director, Center for Biodefense, University of Texas Medical Branch at
Issue: Bioterrorism preparedness. We need to ramp up development of life-saving vaccines and drugs to protect ourselves from attacks with anthrax, smallpox, and other life-threatening bioweapons.
Personal Point of Impact: Former chief, Special Pathogens Branch, National Center for Infectious Diseases, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Technology Review: What are the worst bioweapon threats? How prepared are we?
C.J. Peters: Inhalation anthrax is one of the highest threats. Manufacturing stable material for a weapon is easier with anthrax than with other bioweapons. Plus, we have both the threat of antibiotic-sensitive anthrax, which is huge, and also the threat of antibiotic-resistant anthrax, which would be even worse. We know that antibiotic-resistant anthrax is easy to make. It’s been done. It’s in the literature. The Soviets claimed they made anthrax resistant to six different classes of antibiotics. Anthrax properly prepared and introduced into the ventilation system of a large building that might have thousands of inhabitants could kill virtually all of them. And you could repeat this building by building, or in a subway, or in a closed arena.
But other agents, if they’re in a state-sponsored program, are also a huge threat. First of all, the viruses can be grown in animals, so you don’t need a bunch of high tech cell cultures. We need to understand these agents better, particularly the agents that are natural disease problems. With hemorrhagic fevers like Ebola, you’ve got lethal agents for which there’s very little, if any, therapy. Our preparedness on these fronts is still in the fantasy stage. We need to be moving forward: we have a couple of vaccines that could be developed further, and we have one antiviral drug that could be useful but has not been produced in large quantities or blessed by the FDA [Food and Drug Administration].