The Sept. 11 Canon: Week 1

I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream for Vaccines
New books dissected over email.
Nov. 6 2001 1:42 PM

The Sept. 11 Canon: Week 1

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Here's an insomnia-inducing thought: A suicidal Saudi decides to bring jihad to the United States. Instead of hijacking a plane, he simply hangs out at an airport—after having infected himself and fallen ill with any one of a dozen fatal, contagious, antibiotic-resistant diseases. By the time he sickens to the point of collapse, he might have infected 50 people, who will by then have scattered to dozens of different cities, taking their deadly virus with them ...

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These are the kinds of scenarios that suggest themselves as you read Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War and why it makes poor bedtime reading. The second part of the subtitle is a bit misleading because the book really chronicles the war we've consistently not been waging but should have been: the war against bioterror.

It is, as they say, an ill wind, and some ill winds indeed have lofted this book out of the policy-wonk ghetto to which it might otherwise have been consigned and into the hands of the wide readership it deserves.

For Germs is no Hot Zone, Richard Preston's un-put-down-able, thrillerlike account of Northern Virginia's brush with the Ebola virus. This is a sober-sides book by a trio of New York Times heavyweights—veteran foreign correspondent Judith Miller, crack investigative reporter Stephen Engelberg, and Pulitzer-winning science writer William Broad. Despite a questionable and sometimes taxing structure that interweaves a half-dozen highly complex tales—the Soviet germ program, the effort to unmask Iraq's bioweapons, the history of cults and germs, bureaucratic struggles in the Pentagon and White House—the book maintains momentum through its exhaustive reporting and spare, unsensational style.

Luckily—and not just for the authors—the book arrives at a time when most of us have recently acquired a working knowledge of the difference between anthrax spores and live bacteria, can define the meaning of "weaponized" when applied to germs, and may even have acquired the interesting piece of trivia that b. anthracis gets its name from the coal-black color of the skin lesion its cutaneous form produces. And so, as agar to bacteria, we are a reading public primed to provide a perfect breeding ground for the book's central argument: that bioterror may be the biggest threat facing us and that we are woefully ill-equipped to deal with it. At the end of this book, one feels like running into the street screaming, "Forget missile shields! Get us some vaccines!"

For we don't have them: not for Ebola or Marburg or the dozen other ghastly pathogens this book describes and not in sufficient or quickly deliverable quantities for any of the significant possible threats. The military spends its biodefense budget on protective suits, questionable detectors, and other battlefield equipment and hasn't the resources for a proper vaccine program. Private drug companies can't make a buck out of it and therefore aren't doing it. Funding for basic medical research has been inadequate for decades, and what there is goes to known killers like cancer and heart disease, not potential ones—the new Black Deaths. Meanwhile, most of the public health facilities throughout the country—the first line of defense in case of germ attack—are operating without computers or even, in some cases, a microscope.

Germs is never shrill or polemical, but chapter by chapter it builds a lawerly case for monumental U.S. government incompetence. The threat of an anthrax attack has been clear since the early 1990s, when the military scrambled, and failed, to find vaccines for forces deployed to the Gulf. To claim now that anthrax is poorly understood, not something we could have prepared for, and not a threat the government should have foreseen or been better equipped for is exposed as the most egregious and self-serving of lies. To me, the most outrageous and scandalous revelation in the book is that the CIA had the goods on the exact whereabouts of much of Saddam's bioweapons stash yet failed to share the information with the U.N. inspectors who could have seen to its prompt destruction in the immediate postwar period when the weapons monitoring program had all its teeth.

Yet another reason we should be asking the question: Why, exactly, do we have the CIA?

I bet the authors would have liked to revise their concluding chapter in the light of the last few weeks' events. It opens with the heavy, measured tread of Times style: "Is the threat of germ weapons real or exaggerated? Our answer is both." Oy vey. "Political leaders undermined their credibility by asserting that a biological attack against the United States was inevitable in the next few years—a matter of 'not if, but when.' No such certainty exists." Oh, brother. Somebody, get me rewrite! 

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