When Time Is Running Out

In a November 2016 letter to the President, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) offers recommendations to the U.S. government for its reactions to the growing field of advanced biotechnology. While the council emphasizes the need for increasingly developed biotechnology and biosurveillance strategies, PCAST also hints at a more somber truth – once a threatening pathogen is on the loose, there isn’t much they can do.

While, through this letter, PCAST establishes recommended measures for dealing with biotechnology and the prospect of an active bioattack, its real emphasis is on prevention. As PCAST observes, “it is possible that a well-planned, well-executed attack might go unnoticed for days or weeks.” With a U.S. population of 318.9 million citizens spread across 3.797 million square miles, the brewing of a dangerous bioattack is likely to go unnoticed in its vulnerable early stages, making the detection of a pre-epidemic strand extremely difficult.

Further, the council emphasizes that the U.S.’ chances of escape from a bioattack depend on “effective detection,” “response,” and “recovery capabilities.” If a bioattack has the capability of reaching the level of an epidemic (Ro > 1), it will likely have the capability of spreading before eradication measures instilled by the government can catch up. PCAST makes the harrowing statement, “Despite recent improvements, analysis by U.S. Government agencies confirms that the pace of vaccine development and deployment remains too slow to materially affect the outcome of most plausible attacks.” According to PCAST, once a bioattack is out there, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to reel back in. Because of the severe ramifications of a bioattack on the loose and lack of the ability for prompt eradication, PCAST highlights the need for “enhanced threat awareness” and “deterrence.”

This introduces a tough parallel – though prevention is the government’s strongest defensive measure, the thought of a raging bioattack is a frightening prospect for most citizens and politicians alike. Consequently, PCAST still issues a long-term recommendation for a development of a countermeasures program. The question PCAST faces is, how should limited government resources be best allocated when facing a faceless enemy? How much priority should be given to “recovery capabilities” rather than prevention? Perhaps, rather little. — Katherine