Thursday, June 30, 2005

The milk of human dumbness

It's nice to see the scientific establishment getting its head screwed on straight regarding bioterrorism at last. At least this once.

A month ago the geniuses at Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) asked one of the world's most prestigious scientific journals, The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS, or "penis," in the trade) to delay publication of a scientific paper they deemed "useful" to terrorists. It was an analysis of areas in the dairy industry vulnerable to a bioterrorist attack. Specifically, a professor of management and a graduate student at Stanford laid out how easy it would be to pop some botulinum toxin into the milk supply and cause a major problem.
In an accompanying editorial, Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences, noted that PNAS decided to publish the article "as originally accepted," because they believed that, despite the government's concerns, the article "can be valuable for biodefense" by informing scientists and other key players working to strengthen food security. A PNAS spokesperson told The Scientist the editorial would serve as the journal's statement on the matter.

In a statement through a spokesperson, Stewart Simonson, HHS Assistant Secretary for Public Health Emergency Preparedness, said he regretted the journal's decision to publish the paper. "We recognize, of course, that this is an issue about which good and reasonable people disagree," he said. "But I must say that if the Academy is wrong, the consequences could be dire and it will be HHS–not the Academy–which will have to deal with it." (The Scientist)
The senior author, Lawrence Wein, denied the paper was sufficiently detailed to be a "road map for terrorism," pointing out the information was all available in public information sources (or by simple observation). DHHS's response:
Bill Hall, spokesperson for the HHS, who spoke to The Scientist after the paper was initially pulled, said this is the first time he knows of the HHS asking an academic publication to hold a paper due to terrorism concerns. Although many argue that newspapers and other outlets have exposed vulnerabilities in transportation, nuclear power and other sectors that terrorists could exploit, Hall said this paper stood out because of the "level of detail." It's one thing to say the dairy industry is vulnerable, he noted, it's another to specifically describe how to poison the country's dairy supply. "That's a level of granularity that's of no help to anyone but terrorists," he said.
So I took at look at the paper (available here in .pdf format). There is indeed a lot of detail ("level of granularity") in the paper, but it is mostly in the form of parameters for Wein's model. There is little not already known to the dairy industry or anyone else who wanted to find out. Wein says his intention was to "nudge" policy makers into better protecting the dairy supply.

That policy makers, and more importantly the industry itself, needs a "nudge" is not open to debate. The problem with Wein's paper is that it focusses on the wrong things and offers some pretty dumb recommendations. The very problem Wein invokes for botulinum, contamination of the milk supply, also holds true for contamination with other potent toxins, like 2,3,7,8-TCDD ("dioxin"). If DHHS (and USDA and the dairy industry) were to take this seriously, they would be thinking of many other ways the milk supply could be contaminated but "accidentally" or through negligence. They are not anxious to do this or have its vulnerability called attention to. More regulations? No thanks. Not for this administration or their patrons.

And some of Wein's suggestions, such as requiring security "checks" for farmworkers or laborers with access to raw bulk milk supplies are dumb, both for political and practical reasons (maybe they should have them take off their shoes before entering the cow barn?). It's tough to do a check when you hire undocumented aliens at cut rate wages.

Wein's paper should call attention to the vulnerability of the food chain, all the way up and down its length, not just to rare and unlikely bioterrorism incidents. It should include "terrorism" caused by uncaring and negligent food processors. But it won't, I am sure. Now that's really dangerous talk.

But at least PNAS published this paper and wasn't cowed by the jackasses at DHHS (note farm animal language). It's about time scientists got around to saying The Bioterrorism Emperor has no clothes.