212505 Appraising the Bioterrorism Threat

Monday, November 9, 2009: 4:50 PM

Susan Wright, PhD , Institute for Research on Women and Gender, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI
Since 1995, claims that terrorists armed with biological weapons pose a serious threat to U.S. security have expanded to catastrophic dimensions. Such positions have been expressed most grippingly in a series of frightening simulations and table top exercises purporting to show how bioterrorist attacks could generate epidemics of smallpox, plague and even novel genetically engineered diseases that would spread across vast areas of the United States.

This paper begins with a brief examination of the history of these claims and the responses of the Clinton and Bush administrations. It will then examine two distinct approaches to assessing such claims: first, “vulnerability” assessments which examine the implications of a bioterrorist attack based on the assumption that such an attack can occur; second, “threat assessment,” which examines the evidence about the assumption that an attack will occur, gathered through intelligence and other means.

Finally, the paper examines various defenses given by proponents of “catastrophic” bioterrorism in response to criticism that their claims draw on false assumptions: first, the often repeated claim that a bioterrorist attack is “not a matter of if but when;” second, the “low probability, high impact” claim that even if the probability of a bioterrorist attack is low, the impact on civilians could be extremely high.

The paper will close with a brief proposal for a new approach for the Obama administration.

Learning Objectives:
Describe US claims of escalating terrorist threats Analyze the US claims of escalating terrorist threats

Presenting author's disclosure statement:

Qualified on the content I am responsible for because: Susan Wright is a Senior Research Scientist in History of Science and International Relations at the University of Michigan. Her research and writing has focused on the history of biotechnology, and in particular, the military dimensions of this field. Her books include Molecular Politics: Developing American and British Regulatory Policy for Genetic Engineering, 1972-1982 (University of Chicago Press, 1994), Preventing a Biological Arms Race (MIT Press, 1990), and Biological Warfare and Disarmament: New Problems/New Perspectives (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002). Her most recent article is “Terrorism and Biological Weapons: Forging the Linkage in the Clinton Administration,” Politics and the Life Sciences 25 (1-2) (2006), 57-115.
Any relevant financial relationships? No

I agree to comply with the American Public Health Association Conflict of Interest and Commercial Support Guidelines, and to disclose to the participants any off-label or experimental uses of a commercial product or service discussed in my presentation.

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