TCS Daily

The Challenges to America's Resilience

By Henry I. Miller - October 27, 2005 12:00 AM

Hurricane Katrina's devastation of the Gulf Coast will raise the price of commodities from cosmetics to crude oil, gasoline to grain. How could one storm score a hit on every wallet in the country? And what connection is there between Katrina and a possible avian flu pandemic?

The answer is that as a society we lack sufficient resilience, the ability to prevent, recover from or adapt to adversity. In the gulf states, we permitted a situation to arise in which a huge proportion of the nation's energy-production infrastructure became concentrated in one region -- a region prone to hurricane-related catastrophes, no less. (The impacts would have been even worse, had Rita hit closer to Houston and its oil refineries.)

In both the private and public sectors, resilience is crucial. The buggy-whip manufacturers had to adapt to supplying automobile components to Henry Ford's assembly line, or die; and the federal government achieved an historic success in World War II's Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bombs that ended the war.

In many realms, resilience is in short supply these days, however, and there is plenty of blame to go around. Politicians -- federal, state and local -- tend to be short-term thinkers, their purview often limited to the next election. Moreover, many of them are just not very smart, and they're particularly challenged in science and logic. The harsh truth is that there is little correlation between electability and problem-solving.

The nation as a whole would have been far more resilient to Katrina, had we located oil refineries in other parts of the country and markedly broadened our energy mix by constructing additional nuclear power plants. However, these efforts have been blocked by failures of both government and non-governmental lobbying groups. Nuclear energy has become the third rail of politics, and irresponsible radical environmentalists have prevented the construction of a single new oil refinery or nuclear power plant for decades. (And witness the seemingly endless acrimony over the creation of the nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada.)

These activists detest the oil and coal-mining companies, they abhor nuclear power, and now they're even complaining about wind turbines killing birds -- so what do they approve of? Not long ago, a Greenpeace activist who knocked on the door of my home tried to convince me that the answer to our energy needs was to grow vast quantities of hemp. Hemp? I threatened to set the dog on her.

Mindless, anti-technology activism -- whether in NGOs or government -- is inimical to resilience. It jeopardizes our survival as individuals and our success as a society. There are many examples. Consider, for example, the six-year old U.S. outbreak of mosquito-borne West Nile virus, a significant threat to public health. Still in this year's season (there is a time lag during which animals are infected, mosquitoes convey the virus to humans, and the virus incubates until symptoms occur), infections have been found in animal hosts (primarily birds) in every state in the continent United States and have caused more than 2300 serious infections and scores of deaths in humans in 42 states.

Thanks to politically correct but egregiously flawed federal regulatory policy, however, the tools available to local officials are limited -- and largely ineffective. In the absence of a vaccine, elimination of the mosquito is the key to preventing epidemics, but fundamental shortcomings in public policy have made unavailable the most potent weapon in our arsenal: DDT, an inexpensive and effective pesticide once widely deployed to kill disease-carrying insects.

In 1972, on the basis of data on toxicity to fish and migrating birds (but not to humans), the Environmental Protection Agency banned virtually all uses of DDT. (How ironic that regulators banned it largely for its toxicity to birds: Now DDT is unavailable to combat a mosquito-borne viral disease that is killing birds by the millions!)

Not only did government regulators underplay scientific evidence of the effectiveness and relative safety of DDT, they also failed to appreciate the distinction between its large-scale use in agriculture and more limited application for controlling carriers of human disease. Although DDT is a (modestly) toxic substance, there is a big difference between applying large amounts of it in the environment -- as American farmers did before it was banned -- and applying it carefully and sparingly to fight mosquitoes and other disease-carrying insects.

Well, how about vaccines, by far the most cost-effective and definitive measure for the prevention of infections from agents such as the West Nile and flu viruses? Although their social value is high, vaccines' economic value to pharmaceutical companies is low because of their minimal return on investment and the exposure to legal liability they bring to manufacturers. The underlying problem is government policies that discourage companies from investing aggressively to develop new vaccines.

The major purchaser of most vaccines, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, extracts huge discounts from manufacturers, and arbitrary and excessive regulation also blocks progress. As a result, innovation has suffered and vaccine producers have abandoned the field in droves, leaving only four major manufacturers and a few dozen products. As of last winter, there were only two producers of injectable flu vaccine for the U.S. market, for example -- and because of manufacturing problems, one was unable to provide any vaccine at all.

A similar problem exists for antibiotics: We have too few of them, bacteria are becoming increasingly resistant, and drug companies have all but abandoned research and development on new ones. Antibiotic-resistant pathogens lead to higher health care costs because they often require more expensive drugs and extended hospital stays. The total cost to U.S. society is nearly $5 billion annually, according to the Infectious Disease Society of America.

The trends toward increasing numbers of infections and increasing drug resistance show no sign of abating, and are spreading beyond our hospitals into the greater community. Given sufficient time and exposure bacteria develop a variety of enormously clever genetic and metabolic tricks to resist any drug we invent. A future with few effective antibiotics will be treacherous; and many of today's routine medical procedures, from operations to chemotherapy, will be far more dangerous if we permit the bacteria to outwit us.

Antibiotics research and development have faltered badly over the past generation. Twenty years ago, approximately a half-dozen new antibiotics would appear on the market each year; now it's at most one or two. For decades we've relied largely on minor chemical tinkering with old compounds to combat rapidly evolving pathogens: Most antibiotics in use today are chemically related to earlier ones discovered between 1941 and 1968. During the last 37 years, only two antibiotics with truly novel modes of action have been introduced.

Market forces and regulatory costs have exacerbated the drought of new pharmaceuticals, including antibiotics and vaccines. Until about a decade ago, all the major pharmaceutical makers had antibacterial research programs, but they have dramatically trimmed or eliminated these efforts, focusing instead on more lucrative drugs that treat chronic illnesses and "lifestyle ailments." Regulators at FDA, under pressure to pay more attention to "drug safety," increasingly have become practitioners of what I call the sweaty palms school of regulation -- marked by timidity, defensiveness and risk aversion. Regulators spend too much time worrying about staying out of trouble and avoiding the spotlight, and too little on patients' needs. Drug development has become hugely expensive, with the cost to bring a drug to market now averaging more than $800 million.

Another example of public policy that compromises resilience is opposition within and outside the government to gene-splicing technology, also known as "genetic modification" or "GM," applied to agriculture and food production. This technology, which offers superior precision and predictability compared to its predecessors, is grossly over-regulated by USDA and EPA, and the resulting additional expense to perform field trials with gene-spliced plants causes the technology to be underused by academic and industrial scientists. Worse still, in response to mendacious and irresponsible activism, three California counties have banned entirely the cultivation of plants or seeds improved with these state-of-the-art techniques. (In November, one more, Sonoma County, will vote on whether to do so.)

These local jurisdictions have adopted policies that are unscientific and logically inconsistent, in that their restrictions are inversely related to risk -- in other words, they permit the use of microorganisms and plants that are crafted with less precise and predictable techniques, but ban those made with more precise and predictable ones. These policies ensure the increased use of chemical pesticides and the persistence of these chemicals in the area's ground and surface water.

Because it makes fewer options available, flawed public policy compromises resilience. Prohibitions and the burden of excessive regulation discourage sophisticated genetic approaches to drought and to the eradication of blights such as sudden oak death, phylloxera, powdery mildew and Pierce's Disease, (a bacterial infestation carried by a leaf-hopping insect, the glassy-winged sharpshooter), which threatens California's multi-billion dollar wine and table grape industries. In the face of the kinds of droughts that occurred this year in the Midwest and in California during the early 1990s, the availability of drought-resistant crop varieties could spell the difference for farmers between merely a below-average year and a catastrophic one; but flawed, myopic public policy discourages innovation in this direction.

If individually and collectively we are to meet economic, environmental and public health challenges, we need plenty of options and opportunities for innovation -- and the wealth to pursue them. But in large and small ways, unimaginative, short-sighted politicians, self-serving bureaucrats and venal NGOs have conspired to limit those options, constrain economic growth, and place all Americans in jeopardy.

Henry I. Miller, a physician and fellow at the Hoover Institution and Competitive Enterprise Institute, was an NIH and FDA official from 1977-1994. Barron's selected his most recent book, "The Frankenfood Myth..." as one of the 25 Best Books of 2004.

TCS Daily Archives