By Beverly Lwenya
The first person to be diagnosed with Ebola on U.S. soil has died. Thomas Eric Duncan died on Wednesday. His death and the potency of the outbreak in West Africa highlight the intensity and speed with which biological agents can threaten life and disrupt economies and health infrastructure. In this age of international travel and globalization, a public health threat can jump borders in a matter of hours. The case of Mr. Duncan, coupled with the fact that there is no known cure or vaccine for Ebola, raises questions about the threat from bioterrorism.
Researchers at the Laboratory for the Modeling of Biological and Socio-Technical Systems (MOBS Lab) in Boston are creating models and projecting growth for Ebola’s future trajectory. According to their data, at the current growth rate, the disease is projected to reach 148,000 and 385,000 cases in Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia by the end of October. The United States is one of five countries at greatest risk (the others being Ghana, Gambia, Morocco and the UK).
Yet, there remain substantial gaps in response time and protocol should someone intentionally release a biological agent. With the Gen 3 upgrade for BioWatch now abandoned due to budget constraints (as well as poor project management and performance), the United States has virtually no coherent system in place to detect a biological attack. The Department of Homeland Security admits that “these tools [BioWatch] alone cannot and do not declare that a biological attack has occurred. Experts must interpret the data and quickly make tough, logical decisions about the reality of the threat.”
The operative word here is quickly. With biological agents, rapid response is essential. A report last year by Amanda Teckman in the Global Policy Journal specifically identifies Ebola as a security threat, stating: “The virus’ ability to be used as a bioweapon is a potential global security threat.”
Teckman was primarily concerned with a threat coming from East Africa due to the history of terrorist attacks there:
“The possibility of a deliberate outbreak in East Africa is a global health and security issue because of Ebola’s contagiousness in a globalized world; the increasing rate at which Ebola is appearing; the fear that could potentially arise from misinformation during an outbreak; and the lack of a vaccine.”
The report goes on to talk about the likelihood of a terrorist group obtaining the virus for weaponization and the possibility of a “suicide-infector,” but it deems the prospect of such an attack possible but improbable. Does this change now that a man infected with the disease managed to travel to the United States?
Another question is, should visitors from countries with deadly viral outbreaks be prevented from entering the United States? Would such a move cause an increase in xenophobia? Travel restrictions to West Africa seem to be working for other African nations, like Kenya. But officials from the World Health Organization stress that those restrictions would be counterproductive for two reasons: 1) Ebola is not an airborne virus; and 2) It is crucial for flights to run medical assistance and humanitarian aid to the three nations struggling most (i.e., Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia).
Yet, given that travelers can avoid detection with a simple dose of ibuprofen while being screened at the airport, or like Mr. Duncun, may be unaware that that they are carrying the virus, it seems like more should be done. As slow as Ebola research has been in the past, apparently, we are lucky to be where we are. The research into a vaccine is solely driven by bioterrorism threat, not public health concerns. This is because since 1976, Ebola has infected 2,361 people and killed 1,548. To put that in perspective, this current epidemic has already claimed more lives than all previous outbreaks during the last 38 years, revealing why health officials, the pharmaceutical industry and government officials seem to be caught off guard.
Airport and border security are now on high alert, and the rest of the world is finally waking up to the enormous volume of aid that is needed in West Africa. Let us hope that this outbreak serves as a reminder that in this period of heightened terrorist activity, we must have all our bases covered.