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DVM Newsmakers: Counter-terrorism
Every veterinarian has a role to play, says Smith. "It starts locally and runs to the highest levels of government."
DHS's Kimothy Smith reports the National Biosurveillance Integration System will act as an early-warning system against biological attack or disease threat.
WASHINGTON — With last month's five-year anniversary of 9/11, officials say preparation for a bioterrorism attack remains on high alert.
The U.S. government's goals haven't changed, but the plans are becoming increasingly sophisticated.
Championing the integration of more than 30 biosurveillance information streams is a veterinarian, epidemiologist and anthrax expert Kimothy Smith, who says simply of this country's counter-terrorism measures: "This is a team sport."
Smith's post-9/11 career has taken him from Keim Genetics Laboratory at Northern Arizona University to assembling the world's Bacillus anthracis collection to co-investigating the now-famed 2001 anthrax bioterrorism letters sent to five U.S. lawmakers to his current role as chief veterinarian and acting deputy chief medical officer in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
Now, his top goal is to help implement the National Biosurveillance Integration System (NBIS), a sort of early-warning system described as inter-governmental, inter-agency driven and certainly an enormous challenge currently in development.
"It is unprecedented to share this type of data across agencies," Smith tells DVM Newsmagazine. "We understand that we have to build a culture of trust. These agencies need to trust us with sensitive, often classified, information that they have never been accustomed to sharing outside their own organizations before."
"Situational awareness" is what NBIS strives to deliver. Data-driven and analyzed by a corps of experts, this biosurveillance system becomes an information reservoir to at least 30 information streams from agriculture, public health, environmental monitoring and the intelligence community.
One data stream might come from Project BioWatch, which conducts aerosol environmental sampling in metropolitan areas. Another source might come from animal health and food surveillance sources like the Electronic Laboratory Exchange Network, yet another might track reported data in human hospitals.
Smith explains, "By integrating and fusing this large amount of available information we can begin to develop a baseline or background against which we can recognize anomalies and changes of significance indicating potential biological events, whether naturally occurring or from malicious intent," Smith told Congress this year.
Like veterinary medicine, the information-gathering capabilities of NBIS would be to establish a history to compare future test results. Spikes may signal problems.
"The use of epidemiology tools and forensic investigation to combat terrorism is fascinating, and obviously the field of microbial genetic forensics is still in its infancy," he adds.
The private practitioner and former beef cattle rancher, now turned vegetarian, knows the importance veterinarians play in any early warning of an intentional or accidental introduction of serious foreign animal disease.
"The first person to recognize or suspect that we have a foreign animal disease probably will be a veterinarian," he adds. "The diagnostics for a foreign animal disease or potentially even avian influenza likely is going to be done in a veterinary diagnostic laboratory, many of which are associated with veterinary colleges. But the public health aspects, as well as any zoonotic diseases whether it's anthrax, plague or pandemic influenza, veterinarians are trained and well-suited to serve in public health capacity."
Topping the list
So what's the top threat? Foot-and-mouth disease (FMD), Smith says.
One isolated case would hobble export markets.
Trade restrictions would occur immediately, and the subsequent shock wave from just one case would last for years.
An investigation would ensue. U.S. negotiations with the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) would begin if the case was contained and regionalized.
"There are those that say a single case of FMD is a catastrophic event. I say that with a small 'c' not to imply that a single case would automatically be an incident of national significance. The economic impact, however, would be huge; absolutely huge."
If it was a deliberate introduction of a foreign animal disease, the rules of engagement become that much more complex, starting with the declaration of incident of national significance. This declaration, made by the President with his Cabinet members, is key because "it brings with it a number of incident management mechanisms that can be brought to bear on a situation."
The role of DHS is one of collaboration with all government agencies, Smith explains. For an FMD outbreak, the United States Department of Agriculture would take the lead within the context of a national response. But there would be help not only from DHS, but Health and Human Services (FDA, CDC), Department of Justice, Department of Defense, FBI and EPA. DHS' expertise in countermeasures would also be tapped, including its national network of diagnostic laboratories, technological capabilities and/or access to rapid assays, not to mention NBIS.
Are we ready?
"We are better prepared today than we were yesterday. I feel like we can certainly be better prepared tomorrow. We are working toward that goal.
"Every farmer, rancher and every veterinarian has a role to play in the prevention and response to a foreign animal disease," Smith adds.
"It starts locally and runs to the highest levels of government."