Global Nature of Terrorism Drives Biosurveillance
Global Nature of Terrorism
By Cheryl Pellerin,
American Forces Press Service.
Washington D.C. -- (AFPS)
-- October 27, 2011 – The global nature of terrorism and the growing potential
of nations and individuals to acquire weapons of mass destruction drive the
Defense Department’s effort to counter these threats, the assistant secretary of
defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs said today.
Andrew C. Weber said DOD programs target nuclear deterrence,
seek out early warning for infectious diseases, and bolster the ability of U.S.
partners around the world to prevent, prepare for and respond to events
“Our national security strategy makes preventing and
preparing for the possibility that terrorist groups would acquire weapons of
mass destruction, whether it be biological weapons or nuclear weapons, our first
priority,” Weber said during an interview here with American Forces Press
Service and the Pentagon Channel.
Under high magnification, this 2002 scanning electron
micrograph shows spores from a strain of anthrax
The 2001 terrorist attacks on New York, Pennsylvania and the Pentagon drove home
the global nature of terrorism, the assistant secretary said.
Later that year, he said, a series of anthrax attacks in the United States
caused defense officials “to focus more attention on the possibility that
terrorist groups would acquire biological or nuclear weapons and use them
against cities here or around the world.”
Since 9/11, he added, the Defense Department has broadly improved its response
to terrorist nuclear, chemical and especially biological threats, which can be
accessible to small groups, terror cells and even individuals.
“This is why it’s so difficult to disrupt and to learn about these types of
attacks while they’re being planned,” Weber said, “so we need to be very
American forces are now vaccinated against anthrax and smallpox, he said, and
the department has stockpiled antibiotics against potential biological attacks.
“In a sense, we have taken parts of the biological threat off the table,” Weber
said, “by improving our capability for medical countermeasures and early warning
To keep terrorist groups from getting access to materials needed to construct
biological weapons, he said, DOD has helped strengthen biosecurity at
laboratories in the United States.
“We also have launched a program working with partners around the world to make
sure public health and veterinary laboratories that have dangerous pathogen
strains that cause diseases like anthrax and ebola are better secured,” the
assistant secretary said.
Some kinds of biological attacks by terrorists, he said, could look at first
just like natural disease outbreaks.
“We might not know about it until people or even animals show up sick or start
dying,” he said, “so the best thing you can do [is] to have a global early
warning system for biological attacks, whether they are deliberate or natural.”
The Defense Department has several programs that involve global biosurveillance,
Weber said, including the Global Emerging Infections Surveillance and Response
System, or GEIS, a division of the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center.
For 50 years, he said, DOD has had a network of biomedical laboratories in
countries around the world that are part of this system.
The laboratories allow DOD scientists to develop drugs for rare diseases that
are not endemic in the United States but that may be in countries where U.S.
forces are deployed, Weber said.
“They also give us a good platform,” he added, “for enhancing regional partner
capacity to detect and monitor and respond to infectious disease outbreaks.”
Humans today inhabit an interconnected world,” Weber said, so a disease outbreak
anywhere on the planet is a potential global threat.
“That’s why we need to work with our partners to have a global system for early
warning,” he said.
Early warning systems for diseases, based on good laboratory diagnostics and
information systems for tracking sick people, he added, are “essential because
the most-important aspect of preventing mass casualties in a biological attack
The Defense Department has a robust program to develop medical countermeasures
and rapid diagnostics for a range of specific biological threats, Weber said,
that terrorist groups and countries like North Korea are pursuing.
Weber said DOD works closely with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
in Atlanta, and with the World Health Organization, which has global
responsibilities under the United Nations for improving the world’s capability
to respond to infectious disease outbreaks and working with health authorities
worldwide in the event of an outbreak or attack.
“The Department of Defense has a liaison officer assigned to WHO Headquarters,”
he said, “and recently the U.S. government signed an agreement with WHO [to fund]
some efforts to enhance capabilities around the world to monitor infectious
In countering future biological threats, the assistant secretary said, research
and development plays an important role.
“With the revolution in biotechnology … the range of threats is potentially
infinite,” Weber said, “so we need a rapid response capability after exposure,
once we identify what is causing the disease, to develop a drug quickly, within
weeks or days, rather than the years … it takes now.”
The Defense Department has its own biological research laboratories, he said,
that work on developing medical products and it also works with industrial and
academic partners around the world.
“Agencies like DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] and the Defense
Threat Reduction Agency have been very active in funding biodefense research,”
The focus, he said, is on finding rapid ways to respond to a biological attack
from an unknown agent, quickly characterize it and develop a countermeasure.
“Rather than having a drug or a vaccine for every potential [threat],” Weber
said, “we need a capability to respond quickly, to be able to characterize what
is causing illness, and then to develop as quickly as possible a medical
countermeasure to save lives.”
Andrew C. Weber
DOD Global Emerging
Infections Surveillance Operations
DARPA Effort Speeds Biothreat Response