This Sunday morning I settled down to my first cup of coffee and began my jaunt around the 'net to confirm that the world was in roughly the same condition as five hours previous, fortunately, it was. I say "fortunately" because I was not searching to find stories of miraculous improvement to any of our pressing issues and conditions, I was searching for "bad news".
This story from SFGate caught my bleary eye:
Biodefense spending gives more people access to deadly toxins for use in research
Eric Lipton,Scott Shane, New York Times
Sunday, August 3, 2008
Until the anthrax attacks of 2001, Bruce Ivins was one of just a few dozen American bioterrorism researchers working with the most lethal biological pathogens, almost all at high-security military laboratories.
Today, there are hundreds of such researchers in scores of laboratories at universities and other institutions around the United States, preparing for the next bioattack.
But the revelation that FBI investigators believe that the anthrax attacks were carried out by Ivins, an Army biodefense scientist who committed suicide last week after he learned he was about to be indicted for murder, has already reignited a debate: Has the unprecedented boom in biodefense research made the country less secure by multiplying the places and people with access to dangerous germs?
"We are putting America at more risk, not less risk," said Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., chairman of a House panel that has investigated recent safety lapses at biolabs.
FBI investigators have long speculated that the motive for the attacks, if carried out by a biodefense insider like Ivins, might have been to draw public attention to a dire threat, attracting money and prestige to a once-obscure field.
If that was the motive, it succeeded. In the years since anthrax-laced letters were sent to members of Congress and news organizations in late 2001, almost $50 billion in federal money has been spent to build new laboratories, develop vaccines and stockpile drugs. For example, an experimental vaccine Ivins had spent years working on moved from the laboratory to a proposed billion-dollar federal contract after the attacks, which killed five people.
Federal officials say they are convinced that the surge in biodefense spending has brought real gains.
"Across the spectrum of biothreats we have expanded our capacity significantly," said Craig Vanderwagen, an assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services who oversees the biodefense effort. Systems to detect an attack, investigate it and respond with drugs, vaccines and cleanup are all hugely improved, Vanderwagen said. "We can get pills in the mouth."
But the proliferation of biodefense research laboratories presents real threats, too, congressional investigators recently warned.
Nationwide, there are an estimated 14,000 people working at about 400 laboratories who have permission to work with "select agents" - which could be used in a bioterror attack - although a much smaller amount of this research involves the most dangerous materials, like anthrax.
With so many people involved, there is insufficient federal oversight of biodefense facilities to make sure the laboratories follow security rules and report accidents that might threaten lab workers or, in an extreme case, lead to a release that might endanger the public, Rhodes testified.
Apart from the threat from insiders, some public health experts believe money being used to study obscure pathogens that are not a major disease problem could be better directed to study known killers like influenza or AIDS.
I found myself agreeing and disagreeing in turns, and by my second cup of coffee I was comfortable with the fact that my ambivalence was not due to sleep and caffeine deprivation.
To be aware of potential threats, and what those potentials might bode, we do have to study pathogens, even those that are obscure [to someone other than those who concern themselves with such, for good or ill]. However, our reaction to a biological attack was excessive, as our reactions tend to be.
I have major "issues" with the "All Hazards" approach to threat preparedness. Conversely, I am appreciative of the counter productiveness of concentrating on a narrow threat with only a very small probability of actualization. Added to that bit of concept waffling is the distinction between a contagious and non-contagious infectious pathogen.
I could become infected with anthrax but I would be in no danger of passing that infection to another person [excluding passing along the stray environmentally acquired spores that I managed to come into contact with]. However, were I to become infected with pneumonic plague or smallpox I would pose an extreme threat to everyone who came into contact with me.
Non-contagious pathogens, even those deliberately released upon an unsuspecting public, do not pose the same threat as contagious pathogens. Yet, because we suffered an attack of anthrax those who control, or have influence over, the federal Bucket-O-Bucks [budget] it is anthrax that is viewed as a potential threat worthy of billions of dollars from that bucket. And, since that bucket is not exactly bottomless, the funds given to anthrax research and threat preparedness are funds that don't go to some other potential threat, pandemic influenza being my favorite "budgetarily deprived waif".
We need to bring informed rationality to our threat assessments, whether they are pathogens being studied in labs, those who study them, or the threat(s) those pathogens pose to the public, as distinct from the consequences of contagious infectious diseases in general. Which brings me to my point.
We are a nation populated by the profoundly ignorant.
From The Cutting Edge:
July 14th 2008
Cutting Edge Contributor
Excerpted from Just How Stupid Are We?, by Rick Shenkman, in arrangement with Basic Books.
"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be." -- Thomas Jefferson
Just how stupid are we? Pretty stupid, it would seem, when we come across headlines like this from Associated Press March 01, 2006: "Homer Simpson, Yes -- 1st Amendment 'Doh,' Survey Finds"
"About 1 in 4 Americans can name more than one of the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment (freedom of speech, religion, press, assembly and petition for redress of grievances.) But more than half of Americans can name at least two members of the fictional cartoon family, according to a survey.
"The study by the new McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum found that 22 percent of Americans could name all five Simpson family members, compared with just 1 in 1,000 people who could name all five First Amendment freedoms."
Taking up the first of our definitions of stupidity, how ignorant are we? Ask the political scientists and you will be told that there is damning, hard evidence pointing incontrovertibly to the conclusion that millions are embarrassingly ill-informed and that they do not care that they are. There is enough evidence that one could almost conclude -- though admittedly this is a stretch -- that we are living in an Age of Ignorance.
Surprised? My guess is most people would be. The general impression seems to be that we are living in an age in which people are particularly knowledgeable. Many students tell me that they are the most well-informed generation in history.
Why are we so deluded? The error can be traced to our mistaking unprecedented access to information with the actual consumption of it. Our access is indeed phenomenal. […] It is little wonder then that students boast of their knowledge. Unlike their parents, who were forced to rely mainly on newspapers and the network news shows to find out what was happening in the world, they can flip on CNN and Fox or consult the Internet.
But in fact only a small percentage of people take advantage of the great new resources at hand. In 2005, the Pew Research Center surveyed the news habits of some 3,000 Americans age 18 and older. The researchers found that 59% on a regular basis get at least some news from local TV, 47% from national TV news shows, and just 23% from the Internet.
Read the Cutting Edge piece in its entirety, and be afraid – be very afraid. Informed rationality is rare, although admittedly not as rare as anthrax attacks.
We can no longer afford the Age of Ignorance. We cannot afford it monetarily, and we cannot afford it from a public health standpoint. Beneficial research must continue, even if the pathogens are dangerous. Genuine threats need to be prepared for, even if they are not a certain threat. Understanding the distinctions requires being informed.
A state of ignorance is remediable. We are already in possession of the "cure", now we just have to pinch our noses and swallow the medicine.