International Security Studies


Book Launch--Bioviolence: Preventing Biological Terrorism and Crime

October 19, 2007 // 12:00pm1:00pm

Author and Speaker: Barry Kellman, Professor of Law, DePaul University

What danger does bioviolence pose to the United States? Professor Barry Kellman, in a new book that addresses the question, maintains that although the danger is real and growing, it is not an "acute" threat to the nation. Rather, as a chronic threat, it warrants action without a response that curtails civil liberties at home.

Terrorist bombings, Kellman said, may be deadly and frightening, but they are not destabilizing: even the attacks of 9/11 posed little threat to Western civilization as a whole. The only way to "shred the social fabric" of our society, he said, is a "scourge."

Admittedly, such a devastating plague would be difficult to bring about, but, Kellman pointed out, the hurdles are being steadily eroded. New technologies such as genomics and nanotechnology introduce new possibilities for weaponization. And the biological agents that can be created today are more contagious, more lethal, and have more delivery mechanisms than ever before.

By way of example, Kellman pointed out that measles, which virtually every American is vaccinated against, could be lethal if it were manipulated to be unresponsive to the vaccine. Similarly, polio and the flu could reemerge as widespread killers if genetically altered. While that ability may still be on the edge of science, it is becoming steadily easier to do so.

Throughout the presentation Kellman noted that bioscience is always a double-edged sword. While the "genomics age" promises a host of benefits it carried with it increased risk. Bioviolence in particular, he pointed out, may be perpetrated anonymously; it can be placeless and timeless. To attack New York, a terrorist might need only to infect New York-bound passengers in an overseas airport. The nature of bioviolence allows terrorists to "internationalize" the threat.

Having outlined the dangers of bioviolence, Kellman turned to the policy and security implications. With regard to bioterrorism, security policy is simply not keeping up, he asserted. Because the science is outstripping the policy, and because of the global nature of the threat, an international architecture, one that "transcends" sovereignty, is needed. This would counteract what Kellman sees as an ongoing "failure of leadership" and a failure of international law.

Kellman also pointed to the disconnect between agencies that address bioterrorism and those that regulate public health and disease. What is necessary, he said, is a policy that "interweaves" the two. Such a policy could better promote prevention, which is lagging.

Kellman laid out critical elements of a new bioviolence strategy: the development of effective "denial mechanisms," such as securing labs; clear delineation of the split between offensive and defensive applications of bioscience; limitations on uniquely dangerous undertakings, such as manipulation of the Spanish flu; and, finally, integration of these policies into a larger public health framework.

Policy recommendations may exist, but right now within governments no one is in charge and no one is tasked with prevention. Kellman likened the situation to an orchestra – each instrument is playing on its own, without a conductor to unify them. That, he said, is why "we're not winning, we're waiting."


Experts & Staff

  • Robert S. Litwak // Vice President for Scholars and Academic Relations and Director, International Security Studies
  • Tonya Boyce // Program Assistant, International Security Studies

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