|| 21st Century Paradox:
Biological Advances Can Lead to Biological Weapons
by Anne C. Paine
"The events of September 11 were tragic,
but 20 years from now, America will be a healthier place because of
them," said Dr. D.A. Henderson '50 in his Oct. 5 lecture at Oberlin
Henderson, who is principal science advisor to the Secretary of Health
and Human Services and founding director of the Johns Hopkins Center
for Civilian Biodefense Strategies, spoke during the symposium celebrating
the dedication of the Oberlin College Science Center.
Titled "The Threat and Promise of a New Biological World," the lecture
mixed optimism with realism as Henderson traced the development of
biological weapons and outlined measures being taken by the federal
Office of Public Health Preparedness, which he heads, to improve this
nation's public health infrastructure.
He also addressed the history of smallpox and the possibility of a
biological attack on the U.S. Smallpox is one of Henderson's many
areas of expertise: from 1966 to 1977, he led the World Health Organization's
successful global smallpox eradication campaign. For this achievement,
Oberlin Biology Professor Dick Levin, in his introduction of Henderson,
called him "a hero in the archives of life."
Henderson is widely recognized as one of this nation's leading public
health administrators. Among his numerous awards and honors is the
Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award given in
the U.S., which he received last summer.
"The 21st century is the era of biology. We will perhaps be able to
control, and maybe even eliminate, certain acute diseases," Henderson
declared. Then he posed the paradox. "The darker side of this is the
possibility that biological agents will be used as lethal agents.
In today's world of global travel and migration, infectious diseases
pose a great challenge, and we are ill-prepared to deal with that
The United States has not suffered a serious epidemic since 1918,
Henderson said, but last year's anthrax incidents, and their aftermath,
showed just how ill-prepared the country is for a public health crisis.
"In terms of sheer numbers, [the anthrax scare] was not a very big
event, but it had huge ramifications. Tens of thousands of specimens
were tested for anthrax. The U.S. mail service was seriously disrupted.
The Senate Hart Building was closed. Cipro stocks were sold out. And
I don't know how many people now have gas masks," Henderson said.
United States once had the capability to produce many agents that
could be used as biological weapons and cause widespread casualties,
Henderson said. But under the terms of the 1972 Biological Weapons
Convention, called by President Richard Nixon, the U.S. destroyed
all those agents.
The Soviet Union, however, continued to build its biological weapons
program, which U.S. intelligence did not learn of until the early
1990s. The Russians have refused to be open with the U.S. about their
capabilities, but Henderson said they have developed virulent strains
of viruses and antibiotic-resistant bacteria that could be launched
on intercontinental ballistic missiles. The Russians have 30 metric
tons of frozen anthrax, he said, and great capacity to produce the
U.S. intelligence received a second shock in 1995, when Saddam Hussein's
son-in-law defected and disclosed information about Iraq's extensive
biological weapons program. President Bill Clinton responded with
a secret directive to all federal departments, ordering them to devise
plans to deal with bioterrorism or attacks with weapons of mass destruction.
In describing the method likely to be used by a bioterrorist, Henderson
quickly put to rest the idea that a biological attack is improbable
because it would be technically difficult to accomplish.
"It's much more difficult to make a nuclear weapon than a biological
weapon," Henderson said. "You could produce everything you need in
a two-car garage with four or five people. Everything could be cleaned
up very quickly, so no one would ever know what had been taking place
there. The knowledge needed to produce biological weapons is widely
A biological agent would be released clandestinely, probably in the
form of an aerosol, Henderson said. People would fall ill over time,
and the consequences of such an attack would be national, even international,
In routine emergencies, traditional first responders include fire,
police, and rescue personnel, who work on evacuation, decontamination,
and recovery, Henderson said. But in a biological attack, medical
personnel would be the first to learn about the attack, and then not
until several weeks after the release of the agent when people started
to become ill. Because our public health infrastructure is poor, he
said, consequences could be disastrous.
The work of his office, however, has begun to improve the odds, Henderson
said. Formed two months after the September 11 attacks, the Office
of Public Health Preparedness has already distributed $1 billion to
the states. This has helped establish community links among emergency
rooms, police, and local and state officials. The office is working
to establish 180 laboratories that can test for various microorganisms.
At present, 200 million doses of smallpox vaccine are available, compared
to 90,000 doses on September 11. A new anthrax vaccine should be on
the market in two years. The office is also working with health authorities
around the world, and it has mounted a research program on the life
cycle of various organisms and the immune mechanisms of humans.
The new systems have already been put to the test, and passed with
"With the West Nile virus striking as it did this year, it showed
that the systems the states have set up are working. It was a reaffirmation
of what we needed to do," Henderson said.
Henderson ended his lecture with a brief history of smallpox.
The U.S. ended smallpox vaccination in 1972, so no one under the age
of 30-or 45 percent of the U.S. population-has been vaccinated, Henderson
said. By 1980, the disease had been eradicated worldwide, and vaccine
production stopped. The current thinking is that a single, 30-year-old
vaccine will no longer protect a person, Henderson said, so "we have
a large number of susceptible people."
And because smallpox can be transmitted from a vaccinated person to
an unvaccinated one, the decision to be vaccinated "is not just a
personal decision, it's a societal decision," Henderson said.
Smallpox is a serious, deadly disease; 30 percent of unvaccinated
people who contract the disease die. But the vaccine also has problems.
One person per million who receives the vaccine dies, and 25 people
per million have severe complications. People at risk for serious
complications include those with eczema or immune deficiencies.
Between 10 and 12 days after exposure to smallpox, a person will develop
a very high fever, which lasts for about two days, Henderson said.
A rash then appears on the face and in the mouth. Transmission of
the disease is possible once the rash appears, but the stricken person
is by then so debilitated that they must be confined to bed.
"So smallpox spreads within families or in hospitals," Henderson said.
"The idea of having an infected terrorist come in and spread smallpox
is a very unrealistic scenario."
Henderson left the audience without clear answers to the paradoxes
of our time.
"We're making great strides in biology which lead us to more vaccines.
But at the same time, we open the door to building more virulent weapons.
… How do we handle this? We can't strangle science by limiting publication
on advances that might lead to cures," he said. "The problem will
be with us always. We'll never get the genie of biological science
back into the bottle.
"Every night I wonder if there isn't something more we could do to
be prepared when the next shoe drops."