Take-home lessons of Atlantic Storm

Bioterrorism forces international cooperation

A full analysis of the Atlantic Storm bioterrorism exercise, held in Washington, DC, Jan. 14, is forthcoming, but organizers cited these initial conclusions after the project:

1. Bioterrorism response is perhaps the clearest example of why homeland security efforts must have a robust international dimension.

  • It is in the explicit interest of nations that their neighbors and allies are able to prevent and, if necessary, respond effectively to large epidemics.

Uncontrolled contagious disease in other nations will spread across borders, with great potential to threaten populations, disrupt societies, and destabilize economies.

2. Bioterrorism necessitates that public health and national security communities be integrated in ways that take the traditional security emphasis on territorial defense and add to that a 21st century focus on societal resilience.

  • There have been promising beginnings to transatlantic cooperation in this area, but they have largely been ad hoc achievements rather than integrated elements of a more comprehensive approach.

3. Effective international efforts on collaborative preparedness are critical, but will be challenging, because great differences exist between nations to prevent and prepare for bioterror attacks.

  • Uncoordinated or unilateral responses could help one nation at the expense of many others.
  • In the area of biodefense, nations of the trans-atlantic community are divided into "have" and "have not" nations.
  • It is unclear to what extent treaty commitments or other international agreements would commit nations to support allies in aftermath of large-scale bioterrorist attacks. It also is unclear what actions key international institutions (such as EU, NATO, WHO, UN) could or would take to help nations respond to such a crisis.

4. After a large bioterrorist attack, unaffected nations will receive many urgent requests for assistance from affected nations asking for:

  • Access to and sharing of domestic homeland security assets (e.g., vaccine stockpiles, antibiotics, scientific laboratories).
  • Extensive sharing of situational and technical information in a real-time, ongoing basis.

• Agreements on what actions related to international commerce and travel will (and won’t) be taken to stop international spread of disease while avoiding the negative economic repercussions that travel and commerce interruptions would cause.

5. In the nations of the transatlantic community, the numbers of lives lost and the level of large-scale economic disruption and civil havoc that would follow a serious biological attacks will greatly depend on:

  • How effectively and quickly leaders communicate with the public and how well the public has been included in preparation for such attacks.
  • How well large-scale interventions are coordinated with other relevant nations, because biodefense is likely to be ineffective without international cooperation.

6. Recovery will depend on how quickly:

  • The extent of the outbreak is understood and infected people are identified.
  • Drugs and vaccines are administered to the people in affected regions.
  • New drugs or vaccines are developed to respond to an attack with a novel bioagent.