TCS Daily

Terrorism and Disease

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - August 13, 2003 12:00 AM

A while back, I wrote about the importance of learning faster in the context of fighting terrorism. But it's just as important to learn quickly when it comes to dealing with an older and more deadly enemy of humanity: disease.


Unfortunately, human beings have traditionally been better at learning to fight other humans than at learning to fight disease. But there's some sign that things are changing where that's concerned: we're learning faster where warfare is involved, but we're also getting better at responding to new diseases.


The experience with SARS provides a good example: within a comparatively short time after the disease appeared, it had been identified, patients had been isolated, and a test was developed in short order. (Things would have moved even faster, of course, if Chinese bureaucrats hadn't tried to keep the disease's appearance and spread a secret, in order to avoid bad publicity, for weeks or months after it appeared.) With luck, the SARS experience was a valuable wake-up call for the international health bureaucracies about the importance of rapid response and open information.


There has also been rapid progress toward an Ebola vaccine, with one that protects monkeys in a single shot now slated for human trials:


The new technique used to create the Ebola vaccine, which involved sophisticated genetic engineering, may be used to create vaccines against other germs, including AIDS and potential terrorist agents.


There are issues with this particular approach, but the underlying lesson is clear enough: As we get better at mounting a rapid response to infectious diseases, both in terms of identifying them and in terms of treating or preventing them, we'll be safer from both new outbreaks of "wild" diseases, and from bioterrorism. (Thus combining the two kinds of learning mentioned above.) And the faster we learn how to learn faster, the safer we'll be. Which is a good thing, given that increases in international travel, and the growth of international terrorism, mean that we're probably at more risk of encountering both kinds of hazards in the coming years.


That's the good news. The bad news is that there's nothing automatic about this sort of thing. Learning faster is work, which people tend to dislike, and it's disruptive of established procedures and institutions, meaning that systems that are capable of learning faster create all sorts of opposition. That opposition can come from Chinese bureaucrats, or from those who fear technological change in general. As I wrote here last year, opponents of biotechnology back in the 1970s wanted to shut down the very kind of research that is now allowing us to respond more quickly when these threats appear. And biotech boosters pointed that out back then:


[S]cientific critics such as Erwin Chargaff spoke of Frankenstein, and of "little biological monsters," and compared the notion of scientific self-regulation to that of "incendiaries forming their own fire brigade." They warned that the harms that might result from permitting such research were literally incalculable, and that it thus should not be allowed.


Others took a different view. Physicist Freeman Dyson, who admitted that he had no personal stake in the debate, noted that "The real benefit to humanity from recombinant DNA will probably be the one no one has dreamed of. Our ignorance lies equally on both arms of the balance... The public costs of saying no to further development may in the end be far greater than the costs of saying yes."


Harvard's Matthew Meselson agreed. The risk of not going forward, he argued, was the risk of being left open to "forthcoming catastrophes," in the form of starvation (which could be addressed by crop biotechnology) and the spread of new viruses. Critics like Chargaff pooh-poohed this view, saying that the promise of the new technology to alleviate such problems was unproven.


The good guys won, and we're all better off as a result. But it was a close call, and there are still plenty of opponents of biotechnology out there, folks who would shut down the research if they could, and who aren't above vandalism and terrorism as they try to do so. (Of course, to some of the loonier anti-technologists, the death of a few million, or billion, people from disease might just count as "a good start.")


But for the rest of us, faster is probably better. In the coming decades we face a window of vulnerability: we're still on the low end of the learning curve where defenses against disease are concerned, and right now new diseases -- and bioterrorists -- enjoy an advantage. As technology progresses, to a point where vaccines will be synthesizable on demand, and where antiviral drugs and similar therapies bring viruses under the kind of control that antibiotics have achieved for bacteria, these threats will be drastically lessened.


But the slower we progress, the longer we'll stay in that window of vulnerability. Which is why we can't afford to stop learning faster.

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