Bioterrorism Risk Is Real, but Safeguards Are Falling Into Place
"The threats that such preparedness can be directed against certainly include bioterrorism," Lillibridge tells WebMD, "but they would also include any emerging infectious disease or any other broad scale public health emergency that threatened the population."
The former chief of the CDC's surveillance section and current director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies, D.A. Henderson, tells WebMD, we still have a "long way to go with the safety nets", but the threat warrants the action.
"I think it's very real, I think there's very little in the way of disagreement that it's before us; it's a reality, it's a real threat. I would say generally, the feeling is that the probability that any of the very serious weapons are going to be used is small, but if they are used the results could be catastrophic. Are we worried? Yes, I think we've got cause to be," Henderson says.
Jonathan Tucker, PhD, is a Robert Wesson Fellow at Stanford University and is writing a book on smallpox. He formerly directed the Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Project at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, in California. Tucker tells WebMD, "[I tend] to be less alarmist than most, I think because [my colleagues and I] really have been looking at the data rather than just speculating in a vacuum."
Tucker has written that only one U.S. fatality can be linked to a bioterrorist act, and that involves the use of a cyanide-tipped bullet in 1973 by the Symbionese Liberation Army, the group responsible for kidnapping newspaper heiress Patty Hearst in 1974. He also says that the apparent ease with which a harmful organism could be used for mass murder is overplayed.
"The ease with which terrorists could both produce and weaponize biological agents has been vastly exaggerated in the popular press. There are a whole series of hurdles that would have to be overcome. ... There has to be the motivation to inflict mass casualties. There has to be the organizational structure that is able to resist infiltration and premature arrest, and then there has to be the technical capability to actually deliver the agent," Tucker tells WebMD.