Reporter and professor discuss bioterrorism in lecture series

Josh Linehan

Sitting alone in The New York Times newsroom last October, covered in white powder and watching figures in biohazard suits approach, Judith Miller came face to face with the debate surrounding bioterrorism.

As other staffers filed out, Miller sat alone amid the stunning silence of a newsroom on a weekday morning, broken by the chilling ring of “thousands of telephones.”

She had already written a book on the subject, titled “Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War.” The book was also spurred by a defining experience.

After visiting the former Soviet Union and seeing the laboratories where chemical weapons were manufactured, the reporter had a revelation.

“I decided if the Soviets had done this, other people were doing it. And I had to learn about it,” Miller said.

Perhaps because of her expertise on the subject, Miller became the target of a fake anthrax attack last year.

She brought these experiences to the stage of Ted Mann Concert Hall on Tuesday night as part of the “Great Conversations” series, presented by the College of Continuing Education.

Miller appeared with Michael Osterholm, a University epidemiology professor and director of the University’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. Following the anthrax outbreaks last year, the bioterrorism expert was one of the most sought-after men the United States.

He currently serves as an adviser to Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson and helped plan the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s outlined response to a possible smallpox outbreak.

The report directs responses in the event of a smallpox outbreak and was sent to health commissioners in 50 states and the District of Columbia. It calls for states to run 20 clinics 16 hours per day to vaccinate those exposed in the event of a smallpox attack.

Routine smallpox vaccinations stopped in the United States in 1971, but the disease is a fearsome biological weapon because it is often incurable, killing nearly a third of its victims.

Only the United States and Russia are suspected to hold smallpox as a possible biological weapon, but fears that a nation such as Iraq might have acquired the disease make the recent report more chilling.

Osterholm explained Tuesday why the government isn’t preventatively inoculating Americans yet.

Widespread vaccination would kill many of those it was designed to help, he said, calling the smallpox vaccine, “one of the very, very worst vaccinations we have.”

Several hundred people per million vaccinated for smallpox could die, Osterholm said.

The two speakers covered topics such as biological threats facing the United States and a possible war with Iraq to Miller’s experiences as a woman running The New York Times bureau in Cairo, Egypt, during the late 1970s.

Miller said she feared Saddam Hussein’s potential actions, considering the Iraqi leader’s past history with chemical weapons. But she said she’s unsure how prudent military action would be at present.

“The history of (chemical weapons use) is what scares me,” Miller said. “And it should give us pause. He’ll use them again.”

Still, both participants stressed the need for comprehensive response plans to deal with bioterrorism. After all, Osterholm said, the United States is still not aware of who perpetrated the anthrax attacks last fall, including the fake envelope sent to Miller.

“Whoever did this created a very powerful bullet,” Osterholm said, referring to the anthrax strains’ potency. “But they fired it from a very poor gun. If I had a chocolate chip cookie up here, not to get metaphysical, but people would ask what it was doing here.

“When was the last time you saw someone make a chocolate chip cookie?” he asked. “They don’t. They make a batch.”

After all her experiences, Miller was asked what her biggest fear was. After trying out a few answers, she said:

“The weapons just keep getting better, but the humans don’t.”