U.S. Unprepared for Bioterrorism, Expert Says

By Tom Foreman
Inside Base Camp
April 9, 2003
From its first days, the war in Iraq intensified public fear about biological weapons and the havoc they might wreak on populations worldwide; whether in the hands of a rogue government or a lone terrorist. Add to that the rapid spread of SARS (severe acute respiration syndrome) and it is easy to see why the unseen enemy, represented by viruses, microbes and microscopic poisons, can be more terrifying than the largest army.

When Pulitzer-winning journalist Laurie Garrett walked into my studio, it took her only minutes to make it clear: The fear is justified. As the author of both The Coming Plague and Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health, she sees great dangers lurking; in the desire of some groups to turn disease into a weapon, and the failure of others to prepare themselves for that threat.

Tom Foreman: Do you believe that right now there are people in this world trying to weaponize smallpox and other viruses, and succeeding?

Laurie Garrett: I was in the Vector laboratory in Siberia, where they had created forms of smallpox that could be mounted on intercontinental ballistic missiles for launch delivered in little parachutes that would drift down over cities dropping sufficient doses to cause widespread pandemics all over the world. We know that the Russian ministry of defense continues to have laboratories in operation today and has refused any international inspection of those facilities. Furthermore we know that many of the roughly 50,000 to 60,000 technicians who were involved in the program have lost their jobs and many of them are presumed to have gone to countries that are willing to pay them for their knowledge, their expertise, and their samples.

Tom Foreman: So you buy this notion that within the next ten years we will see this kind of attack?

Laurie Garrett: I don't know that we will, but I know that we would be insane to assume that we won't.

Tom Foreman: Do you think we are prepared?

Laurie Garrett: No. Not remotely. And I think anybody you speak to who is on the ground in public health in this country will tell you we are a far cry from being ready for such a thing. Since World War II we have really diminished our commitment to our public health infrastructure. We've allowed this complacency to develop because we felt like we conquered most of the infectious diseases. So we've really allowed public health to diminish in stature, in pay scale, and in importance and in political clout to such a degree that when the anthrax episode occurred in the fall of 2001 and the Bush administration said, "I want this nation prepared if something like this happens," they looked around and said, "Whoa, wait a minute, what happened to our public health system?"

Tom Foreman: What would happen if somebody managed to release smallpox in the middle of a reasonable-size American city?

Laurie Garrett: If you're talking about a release that was some kind of an aerosolized release so that quite a large number of people got exposed at once, let's say in a subway system or in a traffic jam at rush hour…something of that nature? Well, first of all, these people would all be mobile and almost no one would take ill very quickly…

Tom Foreman: They're meeting hundreds…thousands of people.

Laurie Garrett: They would be moving around. Smallpox tends to be extremely contagious, so that the typical infected individual, if not immediately isolated, will expose somewhere between ten and 20 other individuals. So you're looking at a multiplier effect right away. Now, if you don't even know you're infected and even after you develop a fever, you're thinking it's the flu. And in our society people tend to be such workaholics that even with the flu they go to the office anyway then, in a densely populated city you could in a week be looking at thousands of cases. And the question would be, can it be contained in any geographic space?

Tom Foreman: You cover this all the time; have been around it for years. Don't you ever say that you are at an unusually high level of risk? Do you ever fear that?

Laurie Garrett: I take commonsense precautions, as should all of your viewers. What is common sense? Well, it's latex gloves if you're interacting with someone who has a contact-contagious disease. It's not sharing glasses and utensils. It's a mask, a classic, you can get it at the drugstore, a surgical mask. Wash your hands.

Tom Foreman: And yet you suggest that antibacterial soap, which so many people think is the great panacea, may not be.

Laurie Garrett: It's absurd! It's absurd if you're not in an actual contact situation. The worst thing you can do is overuse any anti-microbial substance, whether it's overusing antibiotics or overusing antiseptic soaps, because all you're doing is encouraging the emergence of drug-resistant strains.

Tom Foreman: How much do we, as a nation, need to get rid of sort of the hype and the false sense of security that comes from such things?

Laurie Garrett: The biggest danger is the American psyche…and it's different from almost anywhere else in the world.

Inside Base Camp's Tom Foreman on Work, Guests

Presidents and prisoners; scientists and soldiers; the heroic and the hated—all have sat down with National Geographic Channel Senior Anchor Tom Foreman as he has traveled the globe for the past 25 years. Starting out in small town radio in Alabama, he progressed through local television to join ABC Network News when he was 30. For a decade he covered virtually every major news story for World News Tonight, Nightline, 20/20 and Good Morning America.

Now, as host and managing editor of the Emmy Award-winning Inside Base Camp with Tom Foreman, he brings his years of experience—and dozens of riveting guests—to the National Geographic Channel at 12:30 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, and Sundays at 11:00 a.m.

As the show's name implies, Foreman asks the intimate, revealing questions that cut to core of the passions that drive his guests.

Read an interview with Tom Foreman>>

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