October 31, 2001

As the U.S. continues its largely symbolic and completely ineffective food-drop campaign in Afghanistan, I found this note from CNN rather hilarious:

    The United States is changing the color of food ration packets it is dropping in Afghanistan because they are the same color -- yellow -- as unexploded cluster bombs. Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the United States will change the color of the food packets to blue.

One would think the U.S. might have had the foresight to differentiate food aid from explosives before cluster bombing. This sort of situation epitomizes the futile and immensely wasteful food drops. Food packets land among minefields and are subject to tampering by groups hostile to the U.S. Probably the largest beneficiary of the drops is the company that supplies the food packets for the operation. It's almost inconceivable that it costs more than half what the government is paying ($3.95 per packet) to produce these packets. Someone is making an obscene amount of money off the "aid" to Afghanistan.

If we wanted to be more effective, we'd probably be better off providing aid through established channels or following the lead of Britain and Russia who are actually delivering aid across Afghanistan's rugged northern frontier.

October 30, 2001

Days after spending $95 million for 100 million Cipro tablets, the U.S. government announced they would promote doxycycline (a type of tetracycline) as the first-line treatment to prevent anthrax infection. There is an increasing risk that Cipro-resistant anthrax will emerge now that tens of thousands of Americans are taking the pricier, more dangerous antibiotic.

October 29, 2001

Bayer, the German manufacturer of Cipro, has been getting a lot of heat from the U.S. government, the media, and the public for its lack of sensitivity (read as "lowering the price of Cipro") during the anthrax scare. Canada has moved to strip the pharmaceutical company of its patent rights, while New York Senator Chuck Schumer called for similar action by recommending the purchase of a generic version of the drug. Generic drug makers are saying the could profitably produce the drug for less than $0.40 per pill.

Despite the fact that other equally effective treatments are available, the fear-mongering media has contributed to the rush for Cipro, the current in vogue drug of choice for anthrax victims. Americans are taking Cipro as preventative medication even though the average American is more likely to win the lottery than receive and anthrax-laced letter.

There are parallels between complaints over the price of Cipro (for which the paying $0.95/pill) and the price of AIDS drugs in less affluent countries. With HIV infection rates approaching 50% in some parts of the world, this can be seen as a crisis. Yet U.S. pharmaceutical companies and Congressmen were up at arms over the prospect of significantly reducing prices to make drugs affordable to the masses. Unwilling and unable to pay high cost of drugs countries such as Brazil and South Africa moved to strip patent rights by manufacturing their own generic versions of HIV drugs. This illustrates how quickly attitudes can change when a crisis hits close to home [While AIDS takes a considerably longer time to kill, it is easily transmissible from person-to-person and has a significantly higher kill rate than anthrax. More than 36 million people are living with AIDS and each day another 15,000 are infected].

October 28, 2001

As a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, I couldn't let this story pass without comment. report Yesterday, Reuters reported that BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit] will pay $1.07 million to settle contractor expenses after an endangered San Francisco garter snake was found flattened at a construction site. The death stopped work for 18 days while wildlife officials investigated the incident and instituted new policies to prevent such accidents in the future.

I've seen the San Francisco garter snake on three occasions and it is a stunningly beautiful reptile, but despite my affection for the species, halting work for 18 days seems extreme. It is important to seek a balance on these types of issues. $1 million is a frustrating waste of money over the death of a single snake even if fewer than 1500 remain in the wild.

October 27, 2001

The Center For Strategic & International Studies report details why smallpox should be a concern, including a history of recent outbreaks. The report sums up the smallpox risk with "SMALLPOX, because of its high case-fatality rates and transmissibility, represents one of the most serious biological warfare threats to the civilian population. "

DISEASE CHARTERISTICS (paraphrased from the report)

  • "infectious dose is small and the aerosol release of the virus disseminated among a small population could spark a significant epidemic"
  • it is communicable from person to person
  • relatively long incubation period with onset of symptoms resembling a common cold - because smallpox resembles chicken pox initial recognition of smallpox may be unlikely.
  • 30 percent case-fatality rate
  • studies of historical outbreaks in Europe suggest that victims had the potential to infect 10 to 20 others.
  • "there has never been a smallpox outbreak in such a densely populated, highly mobile, unvaccinated population such as exists today."

  • there is no treatment, though vaccination may be effective several days after exposure
  • "Vaccination ceased in this country in 1972, and vaccination immunity acquired before" then may no longer be effective.
  • Estimates of the current US supply of smallpox vaccine range from seven to twelve million doses."
  • "This stock cannot be immediately replenished, since all vaccine production facilities were dismantled after 1980, and renewed vaccine production is estimated to require at least 24-36 months."
  • "The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently contracted with Acambis Inc. of Cambridge MA to produce 40 million doses of new vaccine. Initial deliveries will not begin before 2004."

October 26, 2001

This week the Wall Street Journal had an article detailing the career of a leading figure in the smallpox eradication effort in the 1970s. Mentioned was Dark Winter, a bioterrorism exercise put on by the Center For Strategic & International Studies on June 22-23. According to the press release, "Among the findings:

  • An attack on the United States with biological weapons could cause massive civilian casualties, breakdowns in essential institutions, disruption of democratic processes, civil disorder, loss of confidence in government, and reduced U.S. strategic flexibility.
  • Government currently lacks adequate strategies, plans, and information system to manage a crisis of this type or magnitude.
  • Public health is now a major national security issue.
  • Constructive media relationships become critical for all levels of government.
  • Containing the spread of a contagious disease delivered as a bioweapon will present significant ethical, political, cultural, operational, and legal challenges."

The scenario [link]: "With tensions rising in the Taiwan Straits, and a major crisis developing in Southwest Asia, a smallpox outbreak was confirmed by the CDC in Oklahoma City . . . Additional smallpox cases were soon identified in Georgia and Pennsylvania." The result of the excercise: 25 states and 10 countries affected, millions dead..

October 22, 2001

In January an article in The New Scientist described an engineered mouse virus that has implications for biowarfare. In their attempt to make a mouse contraceptive vaccine for pest control, Australian researchers inserted a gene that creates large amounts of interleukin 4 into a mousepox virus. The result: a mousepox virus that kills 100% of infected mice by devastating their immune system. While mousepox poses no threat to humans, the virus is closely related to smallpox, meaning a similar experiment using human smallpox could produce a potent biological weapon. The engineered mousepox virus "also appears unnaturally resistant to attempts to vaccinate the mice. A vaccine that would normally protect mouse strains that are susceptible to the virus only worked in half the mice exposed to the killer version . . . If bioterrorists created a human version of the virus, vaccination programmes would be of limited use.

October 21, 2001

The government bought up exclusive rights to Ikonos satellite pictures of Afghanistan in an effort to prevent images from falling into the hands of the Taliban or the Al-Qaeda network. Ikonos (owned by Denver-based Space Imaging Inc.) is capable of producing images with a resolution down to one meter, a level of detail that could reveal US troop positions and movements. Some claim the motivation behind the purchase is to prevent images of civilian "collateral damage" from reaching the media. The images will not be of much practical use to the US military, which has seven orbiting imaging satellites with a resolution down to 10 centimeters.

October 19, 2001

Epitomizing the idiocy of the average American in reaction to the media orgy over anthrax mailings is Debbie Downey, the subject of an AP wire story. The Phoenix AZ native has avoided her mailbox for a week because of anthrax fears. Never mind she's more likely to win the lottery than contract anthrax from opening her mail.

October 18, 2001

Not that I know anything about this, but isn't it somewhat risky publicizing the use of Cipro as the primary antibiotic for treating anthrax? What's to stop well-funded and determined parties from developing Cipro-resistant anthrax. According to an article in Time there is evidence that terrorists have engineered strains of anthrax that are resistant to both penicillin and doxycylcines, the other two drugs considered feasible treatments for anthrax.

In other anthrax-related news, Ken Alibek (author of Biohazard) recommends ironing mail if you're really afraid of receiving an anthrax letter. The combination of heat and moisture will render the spores harmless.

As the media continues to go apes**t over the anthrax situation, we shouldn't rule out the possibility that the anthrax mailings are the work of domestic terrorists.  After all, the arabic writing inside the envelopes was a bit over the top and the whole campaign reeks of sloppy organization. Also the date, written 09-11-01 should be a clue as to the domestic origin of the letters (outside the US the date would be written 11-09-01). Anti-government groups and your Joe Six-Pack Runamuck shouldn't be overlooked in the investigations. Acquiring and growing anthrax is not rocket science and people who are wary of government activities cannot be enthusiastic about increased government surveillance and the prospect of NATO planes patrolling American skies.

October 17, 2001

I am amused by the prospect of Osama bin Laden answering the questions posed by CNN. The notion that he would actually answer their questions is somewhat preposterous given their directness -- CNN might as well ask Osama where he is hiding. We do have to remember though that Osama is portrayed by the media as being a bit of an ego-maniac. The questions:
1. Your spokesman has praised the September 11 terrorist attacks that killed thousands of innocent people and threatened to carry out more attacks involving lanes and tall buildings. How can you and your followers advocate the killing of innocent people?
2. What was your role and the role of the al Qaeda organization in the September 11 attacks?
3. What was your role and the role of your organization in the subsequent anthrax attacks in the United States?
4. Did any of the September 11 hijackers or their accomplices receive al Qaeda financial support or training at al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan, and was any other government or organization involved?
5. In the past, you called on your followers to acquire weapons of mass destruction -- nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Do you or your followers have any such weapons and, if so, will those weapons be used?
6. The vast majority of Muslim and Arab leaders, including Muslim clerics and Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat, say there is no justification in Islam for the terrorist attacks you advocate. They have denounced you, your followers, and your self-declared holy war. How do you respond to their criticism?

October 16, 2001

The relationship between the Bush Administration and the United Nations has changed drastically since September 11th. In the interest of coalition-building, the US has moved to pay off two-thirds of the U.S. debt to the UN ($1.67 billion) and to promote the U.N.'s key role in fighting terrorism and building a future government in Afghanistan.

Last Friday, Ford and the Environmental Protection Agency announced a cooperative effort to develop a unique high-efficiency "hydraulic hybrid" automotive powertrain, a technology which could significantly improve the fuel economy of SUVs. According to the press release, "The hydraulic hybrid system uses hydraulic motor/pumps and hydraulic accumulators to store energy, in the place of electric motor/generators and batteries used in electrical hybrid drive trains. Like other hybrid systems, energy saved via regenerative braking is used to help power the vehicle. This hydraulic power system could have cost and power advantages over electric hybrid systems."

October 15, 2001

Thanks for all your feedback last week, I'm sorry I cannot reply to all of you. I know there are some display issues in earlier versions of Netscape and someday these may be resolved.

The anthrax scare has now become a media frenzy (even more so than the ridiculous "shark scare" of this summer). While Anthrax is certainly a frightening weapon of bioterrorism, the situation would be many degrees worse if hostile parties acquired biological warfare agents that could be more effectively dispersed -- especially through person-to-person contact. Whereas anthrax infection requires direct contact with spores, something like smallpox is spread like cold. Symptoms are not immediate, so victims could unwillingly infect others before learning of their own infection.

The Wall Street Journal had a front-page article on the Soviet Bioweapons program. The piece was based largely on material covered in "Biohazard", the book by Kenneth Alibek (see commentary from September). Another book appropriate in this discussion is Living Terrors: What America Needs to Know to Survive the Coming Bioterrorist Catastrophe by Dr. Michael Osterholm and John Schwartz.

A few notes on smallpox:

  • Smallpox was essentially eradicated from the globe in the late 1970s as part of a long and aggressive campaign by the World Health Organization. Supposedly only two samples remained: one in maximum security cold storage at the CDC in Atlanta, and one in Russia.
  • Russia poured millions of dollars into developing weaponized smallpox through their bioweapons program.
  • Routine vaccination against smallpox ended in 1972 and vaccinations from 30 years ago are probably no longer effective. Today a few million doses of smallpox vaccination are available in the United States.
  • Smallpox is caused by virus.
  • Smallpox initially resembles a cold or the flu, following an incubation period of around 12 days following exposure.
  • According to the CDC, "Symptoms include high fever, fatigue, and head and back aches. A characteristic rash, most prominent on the face, arms, and legs, follows in 2-3 days. The rash starts with flat red lesions that evolve at the same rate. Lesions become pus-filled and begin to crust early in the second week. Scabs develop and then separate and fall off after about 3-4 weeks."
  • 30% of smallpox patients die.
  • Smallpox is spread from person to person by coughing. Smallpox is most infectious during the first week of the illness.
  • The smallpox vaccine can lessen the severity of or even prevent illness if given within 4 days after exposure.
  • Patients with smallpox can benefit from supportive therapy and antibiotics for any secondary bacterial infections that occur.
On a lighter note, here are some dated quotes on
smallpox severity and infectiousness.

October 10, 2001

More details are emerging about the anthrax case. Early reports indicate the strain of anthrax that killed a Florida man last week may be the so-called ``Ames strain,'' one of the most common lab forms of anthrax common lab forms of anthrax. The Ames strain is often used in lab work to confirm the presence of anthrax in a sample.

According to the press, the excitement over the anthrax incident is starting to reach quasi-panic levels in some places where people are making a run on antibiotics. Taking antibiotics as a preventative is not the most intelligent action for people trying to avoid anthrax infection -- though it is a fine way to produce drug-resistant anthrax . . . At least we can all rest assured that it is safe to buy our favorite tabloids at the checkout counter.

In Houston postal carriers are planning to ask for help from the U.S. Postal Service Wednesday on ways to protect themselves from anthrax spread through the mail.

October 9, 2001

Robert Stevens, a photo editor at The Sun -- a supermarket tabloid published by American Media, died last Friday of inhalation of anthrax. The media is suggesting the anthrax may have been mailed to him since traces of the bacteria were found in his workstation. Employees and recent visitors to American Media Inc. are being tested for anthrax and given preventive antibiotics. A second man, Ernesto Blanco, who worked in the company's mailroom -- was also exposed to the bacteria but was exhibiting no symptoms. He was hospitalized last week in Miami with pneumonia, but health officials said his illness is unrelated to the anthrax exposure.

Does anyone see it as slightly ironic that the first anthrax victim worked for a tabloid?

October 5, 2001

Last night MSNBC mentioned the outbreak of an ebola-like virus (with a 1-in-3 kill rate) on the Pakistan/Afghanistan border. It was only a passing mention (i.e. one sentence), but it lead me to do a bit of research this morning. WHO (The World Health Organization) noted the media reports of Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever in Pakistan are unsubstantiated, though there is a history of the disease in the region: in February 1998 Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever was diagnosed in four cases [2 deaths] in a village in the Kohlu area of Baluchistan Province of Pakistan. In Afghanistan, 19 people were infected, of which 12 died.

Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever is caused by a virus (Nairovirus) which is transmitted by ticks and primarily affects livestock. These basic points of interest were taken from a WHO factsheet:

  • Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever (CCHF) is a viral hemorrhagic fever of the Nairovirus group.
  • CCHF was first described in the Crimea in 1944 and given the name Crimean hemorrhagic fever. In 1969 it was recognized that the pathogen causing Crimean hemorrhagic fever was the same as that responsible for an illness identified in 1956 in the Congo, and linkage of the 2 place-names resulted in the current name for the disease and the virus.
  • Humans who become infected with CCHF acquire the virus from direct contact with blood or other infected tissues from livestock during this time, or they may become infected from a tick bite. The majority of cases have occurred in those involved with the livestock industry, such as agricultural workers, slaughterhouse workers and veterinarians.
  • The mortality rate is approximately 30%, with death occurring in the second week of illness. In those patients who recover, improvement generally begins on the ninth or tenth day after onset of illness.
  • The incubation period is one to nine days (depending on the mode of infection). Onset of symptoms is sudden, with fever, myalgia (aching muscles), dizziness, neck pain and stiffness, backache, headache, sore eyes and photophobia (sensitivity to light). There may be nausea, vomiting and sore throat early on, which may be accompanied by diarrhea and generalized abdominal pain. Over the next few days, the patient may experience sharp mood swings, and may become confused and aggressive. After two to four days, the agitation may be replaced by sleepiness, depression and lassitude, and the abdominal pain may localize to the right upper quadrant, with detectable hepatomegaly (liver enlargement). Other clinical signs which emerge include tachycardia (fast heart rate), lymphadenopathy (enlarged lymph nodes), and a petechial rash (a rash caused by bleeding into the skin), both on internal mucosal surfaces, such as in the mouth and throat, and on the skin. The petechiae may give way to ecchymoses (like a petechial rash, but covering larger areas) and other hemorrhagic phenomena such as melaena (bleeding from the upper bowel, passed as altered blood in the faeces), haematuria (blood in the urine), epistaxis (nosebleeds) and bleeding from the gums. There is usually evidence of hepatitis. The severely ill may develop hepatorenal (i.e., liver and kidney) and pulmonary failure after the fifth day of illness.
  • The antiviral drug ribavirin has been used in treatment of established CCHF infection with apparent benefit. Both oral and intravenous formulations seem to be effective. Although an inactivated, mouse brain-derived vaccine against CCHF has been developed and used on a small scale in Eastern Europe, there is no safe and effective vaccine widely available for human use.

It will be very interesting to see how this outbreak [if substantiated] is portrayed in the media given the recent events. More reason for humanitarian aid in Afghanistan?

October 4, 2001

Early reports this morning indicated that a terrorist attack may have brought down a Russian flight from Tel Aviv to the Siberian city of Novosibirsk. The plane, carrying at least 76 people, Israel exploded in mid-air and plunged into the Black Sea near Adler. U.S. officials said a missile fired during Ukrainian military exercises may downed the plane by accident - nevertheless, President Bush told Russian Putin he was deeply saddened by the events.

October 2, 2001

On Monday NBC reported Osama bin Laden called his mother just prior to the attacks warning her to expect "something big" to happen. According to CNN, knowledgeable U.S officials believe there is no truth to this report. Is this just another example of the media getting ahead of itself again? something

Reuters reported that man with a portrait of Osama bin Laden tattooed across his chest and carrying false identification was arrested in Orange County (California).

October 1, 2001

A footnote relating to the Reuters policy of not using the term "terrorist" -- today CNN posted the following statement: "There have been false reports that CNN has not used the word "terrorist" to refer to those who attacked the World Trade Center and Pentagon. In fact, CNN has consistently and repeatedly referred to the attackers and hijackers as terrorists, and it will continue to do so." Apparently someone has been confusing the policy Reuters with that of CNN.

The solution to all our problems . . . more guns!! ( ;-> ) Last week I saw interesting perspective in an Wall Street Journal editorial on protecting against terrorism ("Only Guns Can Stop Terrorists"). Sections of it are quoted below, but the basic idea is we need more Americans carrying concealed weapons to deter terrorists from committing heinous acts. The editorial was written by John R. Lott Jr., is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of "More Guns, Less Crime" (University of Chicago Press, 2000).

President Bush yesterday unveiled a plan to tighten airline security, ranging from employing the National Guard at airports to place more marshals on flights. Those are important steps, but they won't be enough, especially since no one knows where the terrorists will strike next. The only adequate response is to encourage more ordinary, responsible citizens to carry guns, as Israel has done...

. . . The use of guns to stop terrorists shouldn't be limited to airplanes. We should encourage off-duty police, and responsible citizens, to carry guns in most public places. Cops can't be everywhere.

In Israel, about 10% of Jewish adults have permits to carry concealed handguns. To reach Israel's rate of permit holding, Americans would have to increase the number of permits from 3.5 million to almost 21 million. Thirty-three states currently have "right-to-carry" laws, which allow the law-abiding to obtain a permit if they are above a certain age and pay a fee. Half of these states require some training. We should encourage more states to pass such law, and possibly even subsidize firearms training.

States that pass concealed handgun laws experience drops in violent crimes, especially in multiple victim shootings -- the type of attack most associated with terrorism. Bill Landes and I found that deaths and injuries from multiple-victim public shootings fell by 80% after states passed right-to-carry laws.

Passing right-to-carry laws might even deter terrorist attacks. True, some terrorists are suicidal, but they still want to cause maximum carnage. They know the "return" on their terrorism would rapidly diminish to the vanishing point if faced with gun-wielding "victims."

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