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A bioterrorist attack need not occur on U.S. soil to pose serious threats to the U.S. population, writes Tom May, PhD, a Medical College of Wisconsin bioethicist, in the June 10, 2004, issue of Nature. SARS, for example, spread from its origin in China to 30 countries in nine months.
However, U.S. policies affecting the scientific community may ultimately hinder global abilities to fight bioterrorism, says May, associate professor of bioethics in the college's Health Policy Institute. The problem, he says, are new restrictions -- restrictions on information sharing regarding biological weapons, restrictions that limit research on biological agents, and restrictions that close the door in the face of many foreign scientists wishing to study in the United States.
Combating bioterrorism demands a global public health infrastructure, international scientific collaboration, and an open academic and educational system, May says.
"An open academic and educational system is one of our most important defensive strengths," he explains. "We need new ways of thinking about security."
"A bioterror-related infectious disease outbreak overseas would pose serious threats to people living in the United States," he notes. "If terrorists released a biological agent in a region where quick identification of a disease outbreak was unlikely, they could exploit the ease of international travel to spread the disease to targeted countries once it had established a sufficiently strong foothold to make containment difficult." The more scientists worldwide collaborate, the better the chances will be of containing such an outbreak.
To take a leading role in bioterrorism prevention, the United States should train foreign scientists, medical professionals and public health personnel, May believes. This includes maintaining the open nature of our academic system and avoiding undue barriers on training and educating foreign scientists and medical personnel. Some restrictions are necessary, but attempts to control scientific expertise could hinder progress, such as the development of identification methods, treatments, and means of containing a disease outbreak.
"We can't control access to biological weapons expertise by controlling domestic science," May says. "Biodefense research will be inhibited if we isolate our scientific community from the rest of the world. Restrictions on scientific training for foreign nationals will delay those countries from developing the expertise crucial to identifying and containing disease outbreaks. These are key to any global strategy against bioterrorism. We need proliferation of scientific training worldwide, not scientific isolation."
Source: Medical College of Wisconsin