America faces growing biological threat, researcher tells HudsonAlpha conference

News Outlet:

The Huntsville Times

By Lee Roop

HUNTSVILLE, AL – America faces a growing biological threat from rogue nations and terrorists, a leading biologist told Huntsville’s first biodefense symposium Tuesday night.

Under the right circumstances, tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands could die in a biological attack, said Dr. Jerry Jaax of Kansas State University

"There’s a reason for all of this," Jaax said of the symposium.

"There is a serious problem for us out there that is not going to go away," Jaax said in an interview before delivering the symposium’s keynote address.

"We’re not going to be able to say in 15 years, ‘We’ve got it licked.’"

The two-day symposium hosted by the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology brought together local biotech and defense companies interested in joining the nation’s biohazard response.

Jaax is an associate vice president and researcher at Kansas State University, where the government plans to spend $700 million to relocate biohazard laboratories now housed on Plum Island off the coast of Long Island, New York.

An international treaty banned biological warfare in 1975, Jaax said, but it had no inspection and verification plan.

Hundreds of tons of anthrax bacteria and other pathogens were produced by the Soviet Union in violation of the treaty and only ordered destroyed in 1988 as the Cold War ended. When U.S. scientists visited the anthrax burial sites, they found live spores had survived.

"They had huge programs we were unable to detect," Jaax said. "And we certainly have indications that the bad guys, the non-state actors, are saying they would do this if they could figure out a way to do it, and some of these agents don’t require very sophisticated biotechnology."

A major threat today, Jaax said, is the spread of technology and knowledge from rogue national programs to terrorist groups.
Biological threats aren’t limited to anthrax and other airborne pathogens, biodefense researchers say. Threats also exist to animals (foot and mouth disease), plants and water.

"I think the government is taking it seriously," Jaax said. "There has been a proliferation of biocontainment facilities that have been sponsored by the federal government."

"There certainly is a sense that people seeing the valid threat information recognize what a problem it is," he said.

"The question is, is it sustainable," Jaax said of the research. "Is it going to continue… in this (economic) environment?"

Should Huntsville companies try to join the fight?

"I think so," Jaax said. But he acknowledged not everyone supports such research.

"The alternative is to cross your fingers and do nothing," Jaax said, "and I think that’s a big mistake."