Could the anthrax attacks of five years ago happen here again? Bioterrorism expert Ken Alibek says yes, and he ought to know, since he used to develop biological weapons for the ex-Soviet Union. When someone sent anthrax through the mail to a group of reporters and politicians, five people died. The last anthrax attack consisted of a few envelopes sent out by an anonymous attacker, and we were helpless to fight it. The Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh says that despite spending over 40 million researching bioterrorism and training specialists to fight it, in Project BioShield, we wouldn’t do any better today.

One problem is the current administration’s embrace of big business. Instead of sponsoring research on a wide range of potential bioterrorist pathogens, we are relying on the pharmaceutical companies to do the job for us. But these companies can only make a profit by targeting a specific disease, and once they’ve developed an antidote or vaccine for that particular type of bacteria, terrorists will drop it and go on to the next one. Since we’ll be one step behind, it will be impossible to catch up. Only widespread government-sponsored research can anticipate what might be in terrorists’ minds.

In New Scientist, Debora MacKenzie reports that Ken Alibek says that this “one bug, one drug” is not effective, because it allows attackers to create pathogens that evade or resist each cure or preventative as fast as it is developed. She quotes him as saying, “Based on the former Soviet model, it takes three to four years to engineer a drug-resistant or more virulent pathogen. It takes 10 to 15 years to develop a vaccine and have it approved.”

A better approach would be to search for broad-spectrum remedies that work against many different bacteria or viruses. It would also be more cost-effective?but NOT as profitable. And we’d better hurry, because we?re running out of time.

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