Tuesday, December 05, 2006

CSIS Survey on Bioterrorism

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) recently released the results of a survey that addressed the threat of bioterrorism. In October and November 2006, CSIS polled 52 senior U.S. government officials and legislators, former senior officials, and nongovernmental experts, asking them to evaluate the threat of bioterrorism, the effectiveness of U.S. bioweapons nonproliferation efforts, and proposed policy options for reducing the threat.

For the most part, the survey reinforces some commonly held observations about the bioterror threat.

The survey found that risk of a mass-casualty bioterrorism incident is currently considered to be relatively low, but growing. Although terrorists are increasingly inclined toward mass-casualty incidents, two major obstacles stand in the way: 1) The difficulty of obtaining and weaponizing biological agents that are capable of creating mass casualties; and 2) The difficulty of disseminating them so that large numbers of people are affected.

A more likely scenario is that of a "lone wolf" or a smaller-scale terrorist incident:

Those survey viewed occasional small-scale attacks designed to make the public lose confidence in the ability of government to handle such events as the most likely scenario.
The most catastrophic attacks were seen as the least likely:
Ranking dead last [in likelihood] among the scenarios presented was the development of novel biological agents that are more lethal, more transmissible, and/or able to defeat existing medical treatments.
Still, the threat is seen as substantial and growing:
A combined fifty-two percent of the survey participants saw the biological weapons threat as greater than or equal to the threat of nuclear weapons ... When measured against chemical weapons, the survey results were quite pronounced, with seventy-four percent seeing biological weapons as the greater threat.

At some point, perhaps taking advantage of advanced technologies, terrorists may be able to overcome routinely the technical obstacles to a mass casualty biological attack. At that juncture, the number of injuries and deaths from bioterrorist attacks, which are negligible in comparison to the huge casualties accumulating from suicide bombings, could skyrocket.

Over half of the survey participants, fifty-eight percent, were of the opinion that the biological weapons threat is increasing somewhat, while twenty-five percent of those polled said that the threat was increasing significantly.

The survey participants shifted toward a higher likelihood of a major biological attack for the ten-year timeframe, with one respondent forecasting that a mass casualty bioweapons was certain to occur. The bulk of opinion, fifty-four percent, was that a major attack was somewhat likely [within the next 10 years]. Twenty-seven percent of those surveyed viewed an attack as very likely. A nongovernmental expert thought that it “may take years before there is a successful attack, but that one successful attack will likely lead to several.”
For local first responders, the risk of bioterrorism is worth spending some time and effort on, especially in light of RAND's recent findings that coordination could be improved between first responders and public health officials on the state and local levels (also see my blog entry from yesterday). Questions include:
  • What collaborative efforts can be made?
  • What information can be shared?
  • What joint preparations and/or training can be completed?
It is also important to note that most preparatory activities for a bioterrorism attack would also be applicable in the case of a naturally occurring pandemic.

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