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Saturday
Oct142006

Epidemiology meets Dr. No

As Iran and North Korea capture headlines, "loose nukes" dominate our definition of catastrophic threat for the foreseeable future, with the presumed holy grail of international terrorism being the suitcase bomb.

While stipulating that here-and-now danger, let me help you look beyond "foreseeable."

Security experts classify weapons of mass destruction in three major baskets: nuclear, biological and chemical. That's the NBC trio you hear so much about today, even though, in historical sequencing, it's more like C-N-B.

Nineteenth-century science was dominated by advances in chemistry, which in turn yielded the chemical weapons first employed in World War I. Those weapons didn't achieve much on the battlefield, being deathly hard to wield, so they soon fell out of favor, becoming a latent 20th-century threat that very rarely materialized. Saddam Hussein was a practitioner, for example.

In the 20th century, the great science story became physics, which likewise yielded catastrophic weaponry deployed first in World War II. After some close calls (e.g., Cuba '62), nuclear weapons ultimately became prized for their deterrent value - as in, good to have but not really usable.

When we see Iran and North Korea pursue nukes today, their immediate rationale seems obvious: Both want protection against the threat of U.S.-led military invasion. Our real fear is that either rogue regime might transfer the technology to transnational terrorists, which gets us back to the suitcase bomb.

All worth worrying about, but dealing with these threats has more to do with closing the door on the last century than mastering the new technologies - and resulting threats - of the next.

Biology will define the 21st century, fueled first by the study of genes.

For now, cloned animals and genetically altered foodstuffs constitute the genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that fire popular imagination while stoking public fear, but soon enough the most common GMOs will be humans themselves.

Gene-based therapies will inevitably tame many traditional killers, such as cancer, extending human life significantly. If you think people are willing to spend serious money to keep their hair or end sexual dysfunction, you ain't seen nothing yet.

Weaponization will again follow right on science's heels. Today's GMO becomes tomorrow's GET, or genetically engineered threat.

Chem and nukes are scary enough, but at least you can sense those things coming. The biological bomb makes no boom because the delivery system is nature itself. By design, it's the gift that keeps on giving.

There's a race going on right now in the emerging field of biological warfare - epidemiology meets Dr. No.

Scientists will tell you we're roughly a decade away from being able to rapidly detect GETs using mass spectrometry and other sensor advances.

That's good news because security experts will tell you we're roughly a decade away from many governments and nonstate actors being able to weaponize GETs. If you think America recently got spooked by E coli hiding in spinach, then consider the panic factor of a pandemic-class viral agent that's been genetically masked to look and feel like the common cold.

This is all about speed of response. Imagine rerunning the global spread of AIDS but this time in a matter of days instead of years. "28 Days Later," how many civil liberties would you surrender?

Don't worry. There'll be enough avian flus and mad cows regularly pinging the system to make us more resilient over time, pushing us to develop ubiquitous sensor networks America should have anyway.

Think it's impossible to track all U.S. livestock? Well, Australia does it already with cattle and markets that as a safety feature of its beef exports. So this isn't just about reducing vulnerabilities but about boosting national competitiveness in a globalized economy where danger respects no borders.

Here's the grand challenge: We'll need a system-of-systems approach if we ever hope to move beyond detect-to-treat response times to the bigger payoff known as detect to warn. That sensor sitting in the metro subway has to be able to talk with the one you just sneezed into at your doctor's office. Network all that, and we leave behind C.S.I.-like forensics for something approaching strategic deterrence - as in, anything you can try, Mr. Terrorist, we can counter faster.

Worth some federal tax dollars? Maybe a Manhattan Project? You tell me or - better yet - tell your congressman because the usual alternative is steering this nation's security while staring out our rearview mirror.

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