Livermore’s Biosecurity Research Directly Benefits Public Health
ONE major challenge in thwarting bioterrorism is that the relevant technologies and materials are inherently dual-use and have widespread legitimate application. Therefore, efforts to counter a bioterrorist threat must focus not on securing materials, as can be done for nuclear nonproliferation, but rather on rapid detection and characterization of disease agents and outbreaks.
Many of the pathogens of top concern for bioterrorism, such as those that cause anthrax and plague, occur naturally. The same is true for organisms that might be used in an agricultural terrorism attack. To counter these threats, researchers at Lawrence Livermore and other institutions are directing efforts at finding faster, easier, and cheaper methods to detect disease-causing organisms. They are also devising means of differentiating the truly deadly organisms from less harmful near-neighbors or those that present similar symptoms but cause different diseases.
Despite the attention and anxiety generated by the 2001 anthrax-laced letters, a far greater public health risk is posed by influenza. Every year brings a new flu season. In the U.S., more than 200,000 people are hospitalized annually for flu complications, and more than 35,000 die from flu—on par with the number of automobile-related deaths each year. And we know influenza has the potential for mass destruction. The flu pandemic of 1918–1919 killed some 675,000 people in the U.S. and between 20 and 40 million worldwide, more people than during all four years of the Black Death plague of 1347–1351.
Influenza is a zoonotic disease—that is, a disease caused by an infectious agent that can be transmitted between animals and humans. Indeed, many of the most devastating disease outbreaks in recent history were caused by viruses that originated in animals and made the jump to humans. For example, the virus that caused the 1918–1919 flu pandemic is thought to have an avian origin; the virus that causes AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) has been traced to the simian immunodeficiency virus in chimpanzees and other primates in Africa; and the coronavirus that caused the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome is believed to have jumped from civet cats in Asia.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has the mission to promote human health. Various CDC programs are aimed at detecting and identifying new diseases, investigating disease outbreaks, conducting research to enhance disease prevention and detection, and implementing strategies to prevent or mitigate disease. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) focuses on the nation’s agricultural interests, including ensuring preharvest food safety and the security of the food chain. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for protecting public health by, among other things, ensuring the postharvest safety of the nation’s food supply. Lawrence Livermore’s work in rapid influenza detection is part of a growing effort in zoonotic disease that bridges the CDC, USDA, and FDA missions while directly supporting our national security program in bioterrorism countermeasures.
Laboratory scientists are developing new tools and technologies to strengthen the nation’s ability to prevent, detect, respond to, and recover from a biological attack. As these capabilities are demonstrated and deployed with this mission in mind, they are simultaneously enhancing the nation’s public health capabilities. The rapid influenza detection capability described in the article Diagnosing Flu Fast is a prime example of this dual-benefit research. As we strive to ensure that the U.S. will never be the target of a deliberate bioterrorist attack, it is our sincere hope that the biodefense technologies we develop will find their principal application in benefiting human health.