Workshop explores math’s role in biodefense

Nathan Hall

Renowned mathematicians and scientists met at the University on Saturday with health, business, engineering and military luminaries at the “Operational Modeling and Biodefense” workshop to explore math as a buffer against bioterrorism.

Doug Arnold, the University’s Institute for Mathematics and its Applications director, planned the conference. He said mathematical tools could be very useful to policymakers who need to be knowledgeable in various aspects of biodefense.

“This conference is a great example of what we as mathematicians can do to help solve real-world problems,” Arnold said.

The IMA, funded by the National Science Foundation, hosted the meeting, which was the first to address the role of mathematical modeling in analyzing both the operational and logistical facets of attack planning and response.

Mathematical mock-ups, in addition to computer simulation and analysis, can help determine crucial judgments, Arnold said.

These math models might aid in determining the proper vaccination method for several unique situations and might also help find the quickest route to transport medicine or vaccines to areas in need, Arnold said. However, the situational application of these techniques remains unknown.

The majority of conference specialists have not been involved in biodefense before, Arnold said, but their expertise in other fields will also “prove valuable” in bioterrorism response.

Their respective industries also rely heavily on the math modeling system to enhance performance and efficiency issues. For example, the process was applied to set up more effective routes and schedules for textile manufacturers.

Arnold said the math model is the best solution for complicated problems such as bioterrorism.

“This conference is part of what makes us known as the premier institute for solving complex problems with interdisciplinary mathematical techniques,” he said.

The smallpox connection

yale University professor Edward Kaplan and Harvard University professor Lawrence Wein also took part in the biodefense workshop.

Kaplan and Wein recently teamed up with Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s David Craft on a smallpox attack model. Their work inspired the George W. Bush administration to change guidelines regarding a possible smallpox attack from Iraq.

Their unpublished academic reports claim that a mass vaccination – possibly the largest in U.S. history – would ultimately save more lives in the event of a smallpox outbreak.

The federal government’s initial plan was a more targeted vaccination approach that focused on specific areas of the country, such as large metropolitan areas.

“Their findings are of course still highly controversial,” Arnold said. “The vaccine has caused numerous adverse side effects and in some cases death.”

To reach this conclusion, the trio used a mathematical model to compare a number of different vaccination strategies on how to deal with a smallpox epidemic in an urban setting.

Martin Meltzer, a representative from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the real concern should be pandemic influenza.

“The problems and likelihood of (pandemic influenza) make dealing with smallpox look like a breeze,” Meltzer said.

The meeting also addressed Wein’s and Kaplan’s models for anthrax attacks via airplanes or aerosol cans.

Vanderbilt University mathematician Glenn Webb said the model he and a colleague constructed to explain last year’s unsolved anthrax attacks can hypothetically predict the trajectory of another future postal-borne anthrax attack.

Bioterrorism on campus

the University’s Emergency Management director Judson Freed said he is somewhat familiar with mathematical modeling concerning bioterrorism.

“We specialize in planning for large disasters that threaten things like life, property and the environment – essentially anything that’s beyond local control,” Freed said.

“We would also try to keep things functioning in the event of a terrorist attack,” He said. “We’ve already been the target of domestic terrorists like the ELF and ALF for years, so preparing for international threats is the next logical step.”

Freed said after an outbreak, several University, local, state and federal groups would consult the U.S. president and deal with immediate problems before proper resources could be deployed.

“The good news is that the right players are starting to talk now rather than after the fact, when people are dying,” Freed said.

Higher education concerns

bioterrorism has become a hot topic on U.S. college campuses since the anthrax-by-mail scare last year.

The University of Tennessee at Knoxville and the Detroit Medical Center posted a free online bioterrorism intervention course in January.

Fearful that their research might accidentally aid terrorists, some scientists from the University of Louisville in August discussed the possibility of withholding key information from papers related to bioterrorism.

In Oct. 2001, Columbia University began to incorporate bioterrorism into existing courses, and Louisiana State University dismissed its associate director of biomedical research early this month after the FBI named his as a “person of interest” in their anthrax probe.

President Bush and Congress have continually demanded that universities tighten laboratory security.