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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


"Protecting Society from Bioterrorism: Scientists and Their Societies to the Forefront"

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
American Society for Microbiology 2002 Annual Meeting

May 21, 2002

See also slide presentation.

If you're interested in reproducing any of the slides, please contact
The Office of Legislative and Public Affairs: (703) 292-8070.

[Title slide: globe and clock on microorganism collage]
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The theme of the panel --"scientists and their societies to the forefront" -- resonates deeply for me, both personally as a microbiologist and as director of NSF, an agency that supports all facets of science and engineering.

Fundamental research in all fields is one of our country's pillars of strength and prosperity.

A hallmark of basic research is that results come from unexpected places. NSF support contributes to the wellspring from which research and development emerge. I highlighted some examples from this wellspring during my plenary address on Sunday.

To prevent a double-dose of information on NSF's role in handling 9/11 events, I'll focus today primarily on our role as a community of microbiologists. I appreciate every opportunity to wear my microbiologist hat.

Way back when I joined ASM as a graduate student, Star Trek completely monopolized sci-fi airwaves. William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy were leading us "to boldly go where no man has gone before." Now, for a "nominal fee", any of us can actually book our own flights into space.

I recall a series of events more specific to microbiology that has unfolded almost parallel to my career.

Many of us know the landmark year of 1967 when the World Heath Organization established the smallpox eradication program. At that time, the disease was still prevalent in 33 countries, with estimates of 10 to 15 million cases each year.

As a global community and with hubris, we celebrated ten short years later--in 1977--when the last smallpox patient was successfully treated. Our world was declared smallpox-free in 1980. The success of the eradication program was global, but fragile. The international microbiology community played a pivotal role.

I was never a convert to the notion of eradication. As a microbial ecologist, one has doubts about absolutes. In any case, we now find ourselves facing a most troubling paradox. Smallpox is a "number one" priority on the list of potential biological weapons. (I guess Edward Jenner would be disappointed at this turn of events.)

This situation symbolizes the obligation to outline our new role as a community of microbiologists. We must deal with the global problem of bioterrorism. Our professional community and the fundamental scientific research supported by NSF are critical.

To stimulate discussion on potential new roles for our professional society, I'll close today with a list of potential action items. These would assist federal and state health agencies, our country's first responders, and our nation's citizens in the event of a bioterrorist attack or an infectious disease outbreak.

[T.S. Elliot quote]
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But first, let's look back briefly in time. Throughout history, we have used significant events as guideposts. In American history, we speak of the Revolution, the Civil War, Pearl Harbor, Sputnik, the Kennedy assassination, the Moonwalk, and now, September 11.

With time much on our minds, I offer a framing premise for my comments today. I borrowed this quote from T.S. Elliot's Four Quartets. He wrote, "Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future, And time future contained in time past."

I find much truth in those prophetic words describing the interconnectedness of the past, present, and future. The past holds the seeds of the future, and our future is rooted in the past. Both influence the decisions we make today.

In each time past, present, and future, in each are lessons that will stimulate discussion on protecting society from bioterrorism.

[Timeline of bioterrorism]
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In time past, valuable lessons portend significant consequences for our present and future.

The impacts of infectious disease and bioterrorism throughout history are not new information for us here today. Bioterrorism existed centuries before the discipline of microbiology. A timeline of examples is interesting:

In the 6th Century, the Assyrians poisoned the wells of their enemies. Later, the Tartar army catapulted bodies of plague victims over the walls of Kaffa (in what is today Ukraine).

A plague epidemic followed as mercenary forces retreated from the city. Even then, humans understood the malignant capacities of disease.

[Library of Congress letter to Jeffrey Amherst, 1763]
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Closer to home, smallpox was intentionally spread to Native Americans with contaminated blankets and handkerchiefs during the French and Indian War.

Here we see an excerpt from an original letter kept in the archives at the Library of Congress. Written by Colonel Henry Bouquet to Lord Jeffrey Amherst, it suggests the distribution of blankets to "inoculate the Indians."

This 1763 letter reads, "I will try to inoculate the Indians by means of blankets.taking care however not to get the disease myself."

[Cholera cartoon]
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In reading about the first cholera epidemics--which I do in my spare time--government officials in Paris, France were quoted as saying,

"There is nothing to worry about. We are the most civilized nation in the world. The epidemics that are happening in other places will not happen here."

In spite of this statement, in 1848, 8,000 Parisians died of cholera.

In Paris at that time, literacy was so low that newspapers were read only by an elite few. News spread by bulletins and posters with updates of who and how many had died. There was rumor, propaganda, and extreme anxiety--much like what we witnessed during the recent anthrax cases.

We learned from that experience that epidemiology is not just the science of an organism. It's also about history and society. Personal, family, and community experiences influence public response. History prevailed during the recent anthrax mailings.

[George Santayana quote]
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The words of George Santayana, well known philosopher and poet are nearly biblical: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

We are fortunate that within our professional society, we have the experience, wisdom, and research know-how to heed Santayana's warning. Microbiologists can help guide society--by offering both historical context and by providing a solid foundation of scientific research. Both of these are critical in time present.

It is clear that there is a greater need for public understanding of scientific knowledge. We have a responsibility to convey to the public that science is neither inherently good nor bad.

Over the centuries, microbiology has been a dual use science. Today, as microbiologist we have new and important societal responsibilities. We are a valuable resource for enlightening domestic policy and international collaboration.

Although one-third ASM members are from other nations, we need to encourage young microbiologist to study and conduct research abroad. This provides insight into other cultures, pathogens, and predictive and remedial tools. Close international cooperation not only enriches the research but can serve to alert us to malevolent microbial traffic.

And the expanding diversity of our own domestic workforce is an opportunity to enlist more people of different backgrounds and cultures into the field of microbiology. With the world becoming more of a global community, this must be a goal.

[Internet traffic image]
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The scientific community is a global sharing institution, with information readily available for those who need it. Terrorist organizations can use this benign and beneficial research for their own purposes.

The will and capability to use biological weapons is increasing among terrorist groups and some states that sponsor the research. In 1997, one analyst observed "eleven countries are pursuing offensive-oriented biological warfare programs, up from just four in the 1960s."

The Internet and information technologies have drastically improved the commerce factor for scientific advancement. Here we see an illustration of global Internet traffic, which depicts the free-flow of information.

This exchange has led to an accelerated pace of advancement in most areas of research. However, it is also much easier for a sinister-minded individual to usurp this same information to inflict harm.

In addition, bioterrorism is more suited to terrorist objectives than other weapons of mass destruction. A single individual can manufacture a biological weapon under relatively primitive conditions as opposed to the large, sophisticated facilities and additional personnel needed to manufacture nuclear weapons.

This means that knowledge itself has become the critical commodity.

Our membership roster lists the experts, sometimes the only individuals, who are capable of distinguishing whether an individual is conducting beneficial microbiology research or developing a biological weapon.

With the advent of biotechnology, only a scientist examining activities in his or her area of expertise would be capable of distinguishing between the two. This makes us unique and powerful allies for the international regulatory community.

[time future quote]
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We as a community should not be reticent. The federal government has become proactive and has responded with new investments in research and technologies to prevent, remediate, and negate biological weapons. ASM members have been taking roles to help prioritize the research investments.

But as we all now understand, research is only one component critical to the equation. How we organize to prevent and respond to outbreaks is also important.

[Sobral quote excerpt with American agriculture collage]
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We also know that in addition to human diseases, we must consider indirect threats to our food and water supplies. For instance, Al Qaeda evidently plotted the landmarks and public water supplies of most major American cities. This is not idle speculation.

Many countries considered epicenters of terrorist activity have experimented extensively with agro-terrorism. Iraq, for example, was developing wheat cover smut as a weapon in the late 80s, most likely to use against Iran.

In recent testimony before the U.S. Senate, Bruno Sobral, Director of the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute said,

"A single agricultural terrorist could launch a pathogen that, spread by wind, water, or soil, could cause an irremediable chain reaction.

The food supply and industries involved directly in food production and distribution are especially vulnerable.

A terrorist wishing to cause severe and reverberating financial consequences could simply introduce a foreign disease into American livestock or crops. This would set off a chain reaction touching virtually every segment of this nation's economy."

[foot and mouth disease visual]
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The recent UK foot-and-mouth disease debacle is a case in point. Nearly four million animals were slaughtered. This comes as the UK cattle industry still reels from the $6 billion lost due to the mad cow disease outbreak in 1996.

We see here that only two areas have been safe from foot-and-mouth disease over the last couple of years: Australia and North America. A disease epidemic or bioterrorist attack in our agricultural system introduces another conundrum.

We must be cautious when deploying emergency personnel. An attack in one sector might be used as a feint to divert resources from critical command posts.

A major livestock disease outbreak in Texas would shift our primary command and control emphasis there, as well as large numbers of military personnel. We must be prepared for such decoys that would leave other key targets vulnerable.

[Anne Sexton quote]
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Lest we forget, the same basic science that helped create biological weapons will also provide us with antidotes to these scenarios.

Sensors offer a powerful and practical example of science's dual use. These types of tools formally designed for a single purpose can protect our nation, as well as society in times of peace. From nanotechnology to NEON, NSF-supported researchers are on the verge of a comprehensive quick-warning system with many practical uses.

The exchange of scientific information and its use will always be a two-way street. We need no longer ponder the chicken/egg conundrum. Perhaps poet Anne Sexton captured it best when she said, "Even without war, life is dangerous."

Science thrives on open discourse. We cannot limit scientific interaction without limiting scientific progress. Measures that inhibit dialogue will impede advancement.

Scientific progress is imperative as our country is ill-prepared to cope with an epidemic. This is the case whether we must contend with a biological weapon, an accidentally introduced exotic pathogen, or a naturally mutated pathogen. We have little experience dealing with epidemics of any proportion in this country.

[quote from microbial report]
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Many diseases currently overwhelm our preventative and therapeutic measures-HIV, Ebola, West Nile virus, and malaria--just to name a few. Infectious disease concerns are global in scope.

In today's world of rapid travel and large migrant populations--infectious diseases, regardless of introduction mode--pose a growing threat to our health, agriculture, and economy.

However, nothing in the realm of a natural outbreak could rival the complex response problems that would follow a bioterrorism attack against a civilian population. Such an attack represents a unique hybrid of a national security crisis and a public health emergency.

Organizations and agencies involved in bioterrorism response follow different cultural styles. Individuals in leadership positions would not likely have worked together before. Top officials will rely on the advice of experts they have never met. And, they will also be forced to make decisions about issues with which they are largely unfamiliar.

[CDC trading cards]
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One of the most important roles we can play as microbiologists is to fill the information void for decision makers regarding the principles of infectious disease.

Community-wide response plans that incorporate the latest scientific principles of microbiology are critical. Mechanisms for experts to be tapped in the event of an emergency are also essential.

In the words of Admiral Stansfield Turner, former CIA Director, only bioweapons and nuclear weapons have the potential to bring the United States "past the point of non-recovery."

None of us would consider quoting Nikita Krushchev; but, he warned us that, "After nuclear war, the living would envy the dead."

In time future, the potency, diversity, and accessibility of biological weapons will increase as biological science advances and the number of trained biologists rises. It is likely that Kruchchev's comment would be just as applicable after a bioterrorist attack.

The future we will experience indeed lies in the past and in our present.

Will it be written that we suffered greatly because we were unprepared? Or, will the future be filled with better health care and disease eradication because we were prepared.

I'll close now by sharing a few immediate actions that we can begin to discuss. I put them forward as sketched ideas; I do not mean them as absolutes, but as a mechanism to discuss and debate our most effective roles.

[list of potential actions]
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1) The ASM could develop guides for diseases with pertinent information, for example, symptomatology, whether they are contagious, and what the first best emergency action would be if you suspect it.

2) Locally, the ASM could design a format for workshops that emergency personnel would take to become knowledgeable with the most effective first actions in a bioterrorist crisis. This would serve as a primer for every rescue worker. Then, in an emergency they would all be on the same page.

3) We should also assist in developing information guides for public sanitation officials, i.e., precautions for our food and water supplies.

4) We could provide guidelines and workshops to educate the public. These could be made available in public libraries, public schools, and also via video for public TV and school assemblies.

5) We could also assist with an e-mail hotline for questions from public officials. These questions could be routed to appropriate experts, or they could rotate through appropriate committees.

We hear much rhetoric or general talk about bioterrorism concerns. Some practical suggestions that make use of our unique expertise would be appropriate to discuss. I look forward to your suggestions and comments.

It seems to me it is our "time" and our responsibility to step up and step out!



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