Inkwell: Authors and Artists
John Schwartz (jswatz) Fri 2 Feb 01 08:04
Cynthia, it CAN BE depressing, and can leave a person feeling a little helpless--so much is beyond our control. And, in fact, there's no way to prevent something like this from happening, just as there's no way to stop a committed terrorist from setting off a highly destructive bomb. Timothy McVeigh is no genius: he just knew that if you take four parts fretilizer to one part heating oil and put it in a truck, you can blow up a federal building. And John Hinckley just walked up to Ronald Regan and started firing. So, at its most bleak, that's the story: you can't prevent bad people from doing bad things, short of creating the kind of police state that would be abhorrent to any thinking person. Does that mean it's hopeless? By no means. Preparedness can take a bioterrorist attack that would otherwise breed chaos, panic and deaths by the hundreds of thousands and very effectively limit the damage. Quick response to an anthrax attack with the right antibiotics and vaccine can reduce the number of deaths dramatically: the key is being able to detect an outbreak quickly and get the proper treatments to the people who need them. Even an infectious disease like smallpox can be kept from spreading by setting up proper quarantine and treatment facilities. In Living Terrors, Mike and I call these "mitigated disasters." One death is too many, but without the right kind of response, an unmitigated disaster can easily result. So the top priority is taking on the deficiencies in the nation's public health system--demanding that our politicians and policymakers step up to the challenge. NOT with restrictions on civil liberties or nutty plans to put a biohazard-4-level suit in every home, but with real initiatives like the ones we lay out at the end of the book.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Fri 2 Feb 01 08:45
John, could you give a brief bulleted summary of the actions ordinary citizens can take? I'm really surprised there hasn't been more acts of terrorism, either bombs or germs... I like to hope that there's something in everybody that would make 'em stop short of mass destruction if they had the power, but then somebody like McVeigh pops up.
John Schwartz (jswatz) Fri 2 Feb 01 13:13
I think there are many reasons that terrorists haven't resorted to biological weapons yet (for the most part; there was that incident of the e. coli-in-the-salad-bar by the Rajneeshee cult in Oregon, for example); the main reason is that it's so damned easy to make a bomb. Heck, you can get the instructions out of readily available books, not to mention the Internet. The day we get a McVeigh with graduate level training in microbiology will be a very bad day. The steps that Mike and I outline to address the threat of bioterrorism are pretty simple. 1) Stop talking about "Weapons of Mass Destruction." In other words, break out the biological issues from those surrounding nukes and chemical weapons so that we can begin to focus on the special issues of bio. If the folks at Mother Jones had done that, their story might have been very different. 2) Build the stockpile. Our supplies of the right antibiotics and vaccines to fight outbreaks are dangerously low; the nation needs a buffer. Yes, some of these therapies have one use only: a smallpox vaccine won't help guard against other diseases. But building a stockpile of the antibiotics that have been proved effective in early treatment of Anthrax exposure would have many uses and is worth doing for reasons besides bioterror preparedness. 3) Develop more "surge capacity." Unlike the first two recommendations, which a citizen can address primarily through letters to the editor and to politicians, this is an area where direct involvement can pay off. Hospitals and pharmaceutical companies are running with little margin of error in case of emergencies; there's too little play in the system when problems hit. In the book, we compare the situation to fire departments at airports: for the most part, the firefighters stand by without much to do. But we want them there, and we are willing to pay to have them there, because the alternative is too awful to imagine when trouble strikes. We pay for what we need when we UNDERSTAND that we need it. Local activism can help to push hospitals in the right direction on this, along with the same letters to policymakers. Those are the big policy issues to press for. We don't recommend getting vaccinated against anthrax or buying a suit, because the likelihood that any ONE individual will be exposed is low, and the vaccination program would ber horrendously expensive. We'll need our stockpile for the emergency workers, if the worst happens. What we can do is continue to inform ourselves, and be ready to argue with the scaremongers who are out for their own benefit on the one hand and the professional naysayers who tell us that everything is fine. We need to be part of the debate, drawing it toward a reasonable middle course that sounds the alert without hysteria and demands action instead of public relations moves.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sat 3 Feb 01 09:31
Are there particular legislators who are more in tune with these issues?
Undo Influence (mnemonic) Mon 5 Feb 01 06:36
BTW, although posting 9 was written in the style of Eric Mankin, it's by Mike Godwin.
Eric Mankin (carapace) Mon 5 Feb 01 21:27
Posting again in the style of Eric Mankin, John, did anything you learned researching the book make any difference in your personal life -- anything having to do with your health or that of your family that you changed, or thought about changing?
John Schwartz (jswatz) Tue 6 Feb 01 09:19
Jon, there are members of Congress who have a good grasp of the basic issues -- Sen. Bill Frist comes to mind -- but there's nobody out there leading the charge. Eric, you ask if there is something that I learned in my personal life that I have changed because of my research. Well, I have NOT bought a biohazard-level-4 suit, though I think it would be a really cool thing to own. I have not entered the Army Reserves in order to get vaccinated against anthrax. I think that the research, more than anything, helped me to gain perspective about what I could and should do, and should not do. Rather than get a terminal case of shvilkes that would lead me to take drastic and silly action, it set within me a firm belief that the most important thing to do is to send a message to policymakers and the public, that the government needs to take the right kind of action. That's why it's been so gratifying to hear from Mike Osterholm that federal health officials approach him at conferences to tell him that we got the book right -- that it sounds an alarm without being overly alarmist. I hope that it also leads people to write letters to their members of Congress to call for the public health measures we recommend.
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Thu 8 Feb 01 13:27
> it's been so gratifying > to hear from Mike Osterholm that federal health officials approach him at > conferences to tell him that we got the book right Wow! That's got to feel great. Good for you! As a writer for the New York Times, have you had the chance to present this information (the threat of bioterrorism, I mean, not the bit about a well- deserved stroke from federal health officials) to the newspaper's readers? Do you try to find opportunities to sneak a little info into pieces you're writing?
John Schwartz (jswatz) Fri 9 Feb 01 12:37
I have not tried to write about this topic for the Times; when I got here last September, the book was just coming out, and I was wary of appearing to promote the book from my new position. Also, bioterrorism doesn't fall within my technology beat, and it has seemed a little early to stray too far from the job I was hired to do here. But most important, the Times already has Judith Miller reporting and writing in the area, and her work has been outstanding. With William J. Broad, she got the interview with Clinton in which he discussed his fears of a bioterrorist attack, and their special report, The Germ Warriors (12/98) laid out attempts by Iran to lure scientists from the former Soviet biological warfare system away to work for as much as $5,000 a month in Tehran.
Linda Castellani (castle) Fri 9 Feb 01 14:15
I am astounded to note that it has been two weeks already! Thanks to Eric and to John for being here with us - it feels like we've barely scratched the surface of this topic. You are more than welcome to continue for as long as you like. It was great having you.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Fri 9 Feb 01 16:11
Thanks! This has been a great, and chilling, discussion.
John Schwartz (jswatz) Mon 12 Feb 01 07:25
Well, it's been a pleasure to chill you!
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 12 Feb 01 14:58
The pleasure was all mine! (Brrr)
Rafe Colburn (rafeco) Thu 22 Mar 01 06:52
I don't know if anyone is still around reading this topic, but I had a question. What does the current outbreak of foot and mouth disease tell us about fast spreading contagions in present times? Are we learning anything about our preparedness for such outbreaks from the current crisis? John, has anything surprised you about the outbreak or the response to it?
Linda Castellani (castle) Thu 22 Mar 01 13:39
Infradibulated Gratility (ssol) Fri 23 Mar 01 08:30
Using America's agribiz/fast food system as a vector? Death by McDonald's! Scary thought.
John Schwartz (jswatz) Fri 23 Mar 01 08:55
<Rafeco>, it IS a great question. It's not a world of villages but a world of free travel, with diseases moving around at jetspeed. It's interesting to compare the huge reaction to foot in mouth now with the, pardon the expression, foot dragging that accompanied the emergence of Mad Cow. Remember: Mad Cow, transmitted as nv Kreutzfeld Jakob disease, actually kills people. Foot in Mouth sickens animals and has to be contained, but presents little risk for people. But the reaction has been a near-panic. What does this tell us? That things move fast. That outbreaks, now more than ever, cause panic. And that there are more vectors than ever for transmitting disease. One of the chapters in our book raises the notion of bioterrorist using the food supply as a vector; in the scenario that begins the chapter, we lay out an e. coli outbreak via a central kitchen for a city's private schools. That one creeped me out more than just about anything because it seemed so very easy.
John Henry, the (steeldrv) Fri 23 Mar 01 09:37
It also tells us that the incubation period is much shorter for hoof & mouth disease. Our attention span is ,um, rather limited.
Eric Mankin (carapace) Fri 23 Mar 01 11:22
You don't have to make people sick to have a highly useful weapon. In terms of economic impact, this is going to be unbelievably costly in Britain. And it's almost untraceable.
Linda Castellani (castle) Fri 23 Mar 01 12:13
Am I simply being too pessimistic if I think it's inevitable that both foot and mouth and mad cow will reach our shores AND have a similar economic impact?
John Schwartz (jswatz) Fri 23 Mar 01 12:23
Foot and Mouth will almost inevitably reach the US, where we call it Hoof and Mouth (cf. op cit Bill Cosby). It's very, very hard to contain. I think that Mad Cow will show up here, too, and will cause a horrendous panic when it does. I don't think that we'll see many cases, despite the blending of meat in our food supply chain, but we'll eventually see isolated cases if for no other reason than CJD sometimes emerges spontaneously in nature, and not-so-good slaughterhouses use methods that allow centralnervous tissue to come into contact with the meat. I think of these as very small amounts of absolute risk of a very horrible outcome--you know, like flying in an airplane. So I continue to eat beef.
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