Summary of the presentation on….
Infectious Diseases and National Security
Dr. James Wilson
Renowned medical intelligence specialist and UNR Professor, Dr. James Wilson, presented an overview of the threat to national security represented by infectious diseases. According to a recent intelligence estimate, “highly virulent and increasingly anti-microbial resistant pathogens… are major sources of infections that kill some 14,000 hospital patients annually”. Wilson added that the world now faces the “specter of pan-resistant pathogens”.
In addition to concerns generated by the spread of infectious diseases through natural processes, Wilson also drew the audience’s attention to the probability of a bio terrorist attack against the U.S. as more states and groups develop a biological warfare capability.
Wilson pointed out that numerous times in the past 20 years infectious disease outbreaks have caused thousands of deaths globally. He lamented that in virtually none of these cases did the intelligence or public health communities indicate an awareness of the probability of disease spread nor provide adequate warning for domestic health personnel to combat the diseases. This included the emergence of HIV/AIDS, the West Nile Virus between 1999 and 2002, SARS in 2003, Pandemic Influenza H1N1 in 2009, MERS over the past 3 years, and most recently, the Zika virus (over 5,000 cases in America alone). Wilson also noted the devastating impact of the Ebola virus between 2013 and 2016.
Wilson said that by far the majority of infectious disease spread has emanated from natural causes. Indeed, manmade and human induced biological warfare has been to date rather rare, with limited overall impact compared to naturally occurring disease. Wilson did note the use by the Japanese of biological germs, such as typhoid and plague, over China during WWII. There was also evidence of that the largest anthrax epidemic in the world, which occurred during the 1970s in Rhodesia, may have been an intentional release. Dr. Wilson was quick to point out how incredibly difficult it is to prove attribution without the open testimony of the actors.
What concerned Wilson to a great extent is that American and global public health agencies continue to be surprised, which is evidence of a lack of effective, actionable intelligence. He also expressed deep concern over the extent to which antibiotics have been utilized, so much so that he worries that we will not have the means to combat human induced or naturally caused diseases in the near future.
In response to questions from the audience, Wilson said his primary recommendations for the American public health community to do would be:
1) A complete overhaul of this nation’s medical intelligence system that includes a system of public accountability for intelligence failures associated with biological threat events;
2) A process of linking actionable intelligence to prioritized research and development for effective, safe medical countermeasures;
3) Designation of a single point of executive authority for the nation’s biodefense that is answerable to the President.
Several participants raised the issue of nation state or a terrorist group manufacturing and possessing biologic agents. Concerns ranged from possible poisoning of the New York City water supply to the employment of biological weapons during a global conflict. Wilson said the possibility of causing significant fatalities from a poisoning of a city’s water supply was fairly remote since the agents are diluted to the point of being ineffective. When asked if any major nation state today was developing a biological weapons capability, Wilson said that attention needed to be paid to the North Koreans and Russians. The Russian program, known as Bio-Preparat, was ostensibly disbanded years ago. While the current Russian government has declared that program was dissolved, Wilson expressed doubts as to what extent Russia’s bioweapon production capabilities are truly deactivated.
In sum, Wilson said that he was currently far more concerned with preventing the spread of infectious diseases that occur naturally. While nation states and some terrorist groups do have the capability for conducting a biologic warfare program, by far the most significant concern for Wilson was the lack of effective intelligence regarding outbreaks that may become national security issues, and the associated slow response of U.S. and global health agencies.
The link to Dr. Wilson’s PowerPoint in below: