Monitoring biothreats without a treaty.
Over the next two weeks, representatives from over 100 nations are meeting in Geneva, Switzerland to consider what should be done to strengthen adherence to a l972 ban on the development and production of biological-weapons agents known as the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).
The Bush administration has done a great deal to blast reality into these talks by demanding that anything agreed to actually produce better results than the status quo. Certainly, the administration's proposals make far more sense than what other nations have tabled. Yet, with regard to the critical issue of international monitoring of infectious diseases, even the White House's levelheaded suggestions, fall short of what could be accomplished without international negotiations through sensible unilateral actions.
A quick review of the bidding reveals why.
Earlier in July, the Bush administration took the sensible step of withdrawing from negotiations to secure a legally binding protocol to the BWC. The protocol being negotiated would have required a variety of inspections of civilian biological-research laboratories along with defense-related facilities. Unfortunately, the inspections procedures, which were supposed to ferret out illicit biological research, were egregiously prone to produce false positives — i.e., false evidence of weapons-related activity where there, in fact, was none. Worse still, such false positives were far more likely to manifest themselves with regard to innocent parties in advanced nations (where far more suspect facilities would be opened up for inspection) than in the case of guilty parties who would be more inclined to maintain covert programs to evade such inspections. Reaching agreement to the proposed protocol, in short, would have been worse than having no agreement at all.
Bush administration officials understood this, pulled out of the negotiations, and devised a much more reasonable list of proposals for members of the BWC to consider. The first three of these make eminent sense. Each member of the BWC should criminalize private citizens' development, acquisition, production, or use of biological weapons in their national laws. The BWC's membership should also agree on an international set of standards as to who should have access to dangerous germs, toxins, and viruses to do needed defensive research. In addition, the members of the BWC need to develop mechanisms for investigating outbreaks of infectious disease. At present there are no such procedures.
The last American suggestion — that all members to the BWC agree to support the World Health Organization's effort to monitor outbreaks of infectious disease — also seems quite sensible. It is no substitute, however, for unilateral action. Indeed, unlike the administration's other proposals, which require international concurrence, the American proposal regarding health monitoring is one that ought not to wait upon any agreement.
The World Health Organization, it turns out, has been trying for some time to get all of its members to monitor the outbreak of infectious diseases. The problem is that so far, it has only be able to get its membership to agree to look out for and report on three sicknesses — yellow fever, plague, and cholera. The reporting, moreover, is generally limited to passing on information regarding confirmed outbreaks, rather the type of preliminary data that is needed to contain such outbreaks in a much more timely fashion.
Backing this sort of reporting conservatism may make sense if you are an underdeveloped nation fearful of losing tourism dollars but it makes no sense if you need early warning of the possible outbreak of a vast array of infectious diseases before they spread out of control. The U.S. government understands this. That's why in response to September 11th, it authorized the expansion of an inexpensive, proven reporting system already working in New Mexico, known as R.S.V.P. (Rapid Syndrome Validation Project), to additional U.S. states.
RSVP uses computers, touch-screen entry, and the Internet to enable doctors to make speedy reports to public health authorities when they encounter patients who have a particular set of symptoms. A report can be filed in less than a minute, assumes no prior knowledge of exotic diseases, and covers over 90 percent of the diseases a biological-weapons attack might inflict. The program is also cheap. The system's developer, Dr. Alan Zelicoff of Sandia Laboratory, estimates that a basic global system of 10,000 reporting stations could be put on line for approximately $20 million.
Getting such health-monitoring stations installed needn't wait on international support for the World Health Organization, of U.S. proposals at Geneva, or even of the BWC. Instead, the U.S. could seek out partners to set up health-monitoring stations in both disease-stricken and advanced nations, and do so without delay. The immediate benefit would be to improve international public-health reporting. The long-term payoff would be to establish a baseline against unusual events, such as bioterrorist attacks or epidemics. These could, then, be identified early enough to prevent harm from coming to any nation's general population.
Taking this tact, of course, would not require an international treaty or protocol. Yet, it's still well worth doing. Indeed, the alternative, quite literally, is a prescription for deadly delay.