April 7, 2003

Biowarfare is subject of latest JAC forum

By Eric Rangus

The history of bioterrorism and modern methods to deter the use of biological weapons, prepare to meet their threat and research the makeup of the weapons themselves were the subjects of the latest installment of the Emory Public Issues Forum.

“Bioterrorism and Biodefense” was the title of the talk given by Ruth Berkelman, Rollins Professor and director of the Center for Public Health Preparedness and Research in the Rollins School of Public Health. Berkelman spoke to a small gathering in the third-floor reception hall of the Carlos Museum, Monday, March 31.

“The challenges we face are formidable, but we must face them,” said Berkelman, a CDC veteran of 20 years prior to coming to Emory in 2001. Berkel-man, an epidemiologist by training who earned her medical degree from Harvard Medical School, was assistant surgeon general and senior advisor to the CDC director from 1998–2000. From 1992–97, she led the CDC’s efforts to respond to threats of emerging infectious diseases.

Berkelman began by sketching a history of biological warfare, which dates to ancient times, when dead animals were thrown into wells to contaminate drinking water. On this continent, the first incidence of biowarfare came in the 18th century when European traders gave blankets laced with the smallpox virus to Native Americans.

She quickly moved to the 20th century, detailing the work of both the United States, which she said abandoned its bioweapons programs in the 1960s, and the former Soviet Union, which continued its research. It wasn’t until the country’s breakup that the West realized how extensive the Soviet Union’s bioweapons programs were, and the hard times that had befallen the tens of thousands of scientists who did the dangerous work.

Engaging these former Soviet scientists and trying to put their expertise to positive use is a central goal of biological warfare deterrence, Berkelman said. The United States and its allies must prevent their recruitment by rogue states or terrorist groups.

Preparedness also plays a major role in deterring the use of biological weapons, Berkelman said. Having a smallpox vaccine available, for instance, lessens the chance the virus might be used in an attack.

Universities such as Emory are already doing work in this area, and Berkelman said that research, especially at the university level, is crucial to winning the fight. “Scientists will be at the forefront of this work,” she said. “And we especially have to engage younger scientists.”

Berkelman added that all parts of a university can contribute, not just medical schools. Political science and religion departments—even business schools, which can deal with security and risk-management issues—can play roles.

“The threat is real,” Berkelman said. “It’s unlikely that we can prevent the development of weapons of mass destruction, but we must learn ways to deter their use or how to mitigate the damage if they are used.”

After her prepared address, Berkelman answered questions. First she responded to a few that had been submitted on index cards and read by moderator John Ford, senior vice president and dean for Campus Life.

Then she stepped out from behind her microphone and answered about a dozen more from the audience, often venturing into the middle of the reception hall, adding a personal touch.

The Public Issues Forum is a project of the Joint Activities Committee (JAC), a partnership between Emory College and Campus Life that looks for ways to bring together students and faculty outside the classroom. Monday’s event was the third in the series.

The first forum was held last fall and featured a discussion of the Bush administration’s Iraq policy. In February, President Emeritus James Laney discussed the dangers of North Korea’s newly revived nuclear program.