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Science-Fiction Policy

In an exaggerated response to a work of science fiction, the U.S. govenment is set to spend hundreds of millions to fight “bioterrism.” Is this any way to make public policy?
November 1, 1998

At a time when hollywood producers jet in to script White House speeches, it comes as no surprise that politics often gets conflated with entertainment. But it may be surprising to learn that the nation’s controversial new policy on bioterrorism was apparently inspired, at least in part, by a work of fiction.

Bill Clinton’s enthusiasm for “black biology” arose largely from his reading of a novel called The Cobra Event, according to an account in The New York Times last August. The author, Richard Preston, has written several estimable nonfiction books, including First Light, a superb account of contemporary astronomy. But Preston is best known for The Hot Zone, a best seller that introduced the lay public to the ebola virus.

The Hot Zone describes a 1989 outbreak of ebola virus in a monkey population in Reston, Va., which-readers were led to believe-seemed destined to lead to a biological holocaust in the surrounding suburbs. To be fair, infectious disease experts were concerned that humans might indeed become infected. But the hair-raising narrative tends to smudge a salient, deflating fact: A number of humans had been exposed to the monkey virus for up to six weeks before authorities even got wind of the problem, whereas the incubation time for ebola is two to 21 days. Four animal handlers did show signs of infection with the virus-but none became ill. The account represents prodigious reporting, told in taut scarifying prose, all in the service of…a nonevent.

The Cobra Event is similarly scary, and also schizophrenic. Half of it reads like fiction (a better than average page-turner and light-years more sophisticated than The Andromeda Strain) and half like nonfiction (written with the clarity and authority of Preston’s other nonfiction books). The plot, boiled down to basics, has a deranged scientist testing a genetically engineered bioweapon in New York City and Washington, D.C. This fictional virus combines the worst traits of smallpox, common cold virus, and a prolifically replicating insect virus, and comes seasoned with a genetic glitch that causes the self-mutilating disorder known as Lesch-Nyhan syndrome. People begin to die horrible deaths; their brains liquify and they gnaw off their own lips, fingers and tongues.

Cobra is a clever concoction, but is it plausible? “No way in hell it would work,” says C. J. Peters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, perhaps the world’s leading expert on “hot” viruses. Norton Zinder, a molecular biologist at Rockefeller University who has worked on viruses for half a century, agrees that a recombinant virus like Cobra “has no probability of working,” and goes much further. “There is no evidence that biological warfare is a useful weapon. These guys,” he says, referring not only to popularizers but also to Defense Department bioterrorism experts in search of funding, “are making a living out of scaring people.”

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.

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