School of Public Health and Community Medicine

Infectious diseases experts say Australia is unprepared for a bioterrorism attack

Image - Infectious diseases experts say Australia is unprepared for a bioterrorism attack

It’s a frightening prospect: a deadly synthetic contagion is deliberately released at a major public event with the potential to inflict serious illness and death.

The convenors of Australia’s first university-based bioterrorism course say despite the real possibility of a bioterrorist attack, the world remains ill-equipped to deal with the threat, because the approach to tackling the issue has remained largely unchanged since the Cold War.

“The possibility that terrorists may have genetically engineered a hybrid of one of traditional pathogens cannot be discounted."

UNSW Professor of Infectious Diseases Epidemiology Raina MacIntyre, Head of the School of Public Health & Community Medicine and course convenor, says training, legislation and policy internationally is struggling to keep up with the unprecedented challenges posed by advances in science, leaving populations vulnerable to an attack.

The UNSW Bioterrorism and Health Intelligence course will bring together experts from UNSW, Australia’s Defence Science and Technology Organisation, the Australian Army and the NSW Police later this month. They will be joined by international bioterrorism and disaster authorities from the United States, including the FBI, China, Malaysia and India.

The course will critically evaluate the bioterrorism threats to population health and highlight the new systems and approaches needed to mitigate that threat.

A partly industry-sponsored report released last week by former US Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman and former Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge, highlighted the lack of preparedness in the United States for a biological attack or epidemic. The United States spends $US6 billion a year on biodefence.

The UNSW Bioterrorism and Health Intelligence course is Australia's first university-based bioterrorism course.

Professor MacIntyre says Australia's upgraded counter-terrorism laws have tended to focus on aspects such as foreign incursions and control orders, with less of a focus on bioterrorism, which is arguably just as important.

“Current legal frameworks mean it can take years to prosecute a rogue scientist doing unauthorised experiments, but smallpox or pandemic influenza can spread around the world in weeks. Our laws need to be revised to protect the public interest,” Professor MacIntyre says.

“In addition, methods for engineering new viruses are now publicly available on the internet.

“The possibility that terrorists may have genetically engineered a hybrid of one of these traditional pathogens cannot be discounted and is something that we need to be better prepared for,” Professor MacIntyre says.

Course co-convenor, Dr David Muscatello, an expert in the spread of influenza, says the genetic engineering of pathogens is now a reality due to the rapid international acceleration of dual-use research of concern (DURC), which is research intended for good that may also be used to cause harm to humans.

Last year an international team of scientists generated an influenza virus with similar characteristics to the 1918 pandemic influenza virus. The death toll from the 1918 pandemic was an estimated 50 million people.

The polarising study, published in the Cell Host & Microbe journal, investigated the possibility of a pandemic influenza virus emerging from the pool of influenza viruses circulating in wild birds.

“Such research is not without risks. A US report released this month has highlighted the risk of laboratory accidents, with major incidents involving anthrax, Ebola, small pox and avian influenza occurring in the US in 2014,” Dr Muscatello says.

“The insider threat also poses major risks and will be covered in this new course.”

A recent US Pentagon investigation found its military laboratories sent live anthrax samples in the mail to other laboratories interstate and to Canada. The report noted that the irradiation of anthrax samples is meant to kill live anthrax spores before they are distributed, which didn’t occur on two occasions in the past 10 years.

Professor MacIntyre says despite the incidents posing no serious health threat to the public, they highlight some of the typical flaws in the international systems for dealing with biohazards.

The five-day intensive UNSW Bioterrorism and Health Intelligence course, which is aimed at individuals working at the frontline of the bioterrorism response, begins on 11 December 2015. The course, which can be completed in Sydney in a face-to-face workshop mode or as a fully online intensive, is credited towards a Masters in Public Health (Public Security), a new UNSW course on offer for postgraduate students.