Web Zap*Germs Archive

June 08, 2003

Germs: a Top National Security Threat?

Spyros Andreopoulos, director emeritus of the Office of Communication and Public Affairs at Stanford University Medical Center, has written a thought-provoking op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle, in which he bluntly states, "Stopping the threat of infectious diseases imported from developing countries should become a top national security priority." He notes that policymakers, like the general public, until recently thought that infectious diseases had been defeated. It took AIDS and Ebola to reverse declines in research funding for antibiotics and vaccines. Now SARS, spread largely through international travel, has forced authorities to focus on neglected aspects of anti-germ warfare. "We know very little about how changes in social behavior and customs in Asia or Africa provide opportunities for microbes to produce unexpected epidemics," he says.

Andreopoulos proposes several changes to current policy to fight the unseen foe:

-- substantial investments from governments of wealthy nations and philanthropic foundations;

-- innovative partnering between the scientific community and private industry; and

-- elimination of patents for predetermined products, such as an HIV vaccine or the sequence of SARS virus.

The first two are no-brainers, but the third really doesn't stand too much of a chance of success, unless the drug companies are compensated for the enormous costs of developing these drugs through a lot of that #2 "innovative partnering" that provides some financial lifeboat for aggressive experimental treatments that don't pan out.