With biological threats, professor says science needs a part in policy

By Noah Lenstra

If foot-and-mouth disease, “arguably the most significant animal disease in the world” according to pathobiology professor Daniel Rock, was introduced into the United States, a worst-case scenario would require the slaughter of approximately 40 percent of America’s cattle.

“It’s truly a global world. People and products are moving at ferocious speeds. Just because it’s in Southwest Asia or Africa doesn’t mean it couldn’t be in the United States … An introduction of these diseases into the U.S. could have a catastrophic effect,” said Rock.

Foot-and-mouth disease is an infectious disease that can affect all cloven-footed animals, such as deer, horses and cattle. The last U.S. outbreak was in 1929, and large portions of the world currently harbor the disease.

With the increased risks of bioterrorsim, Rock says we need to re-think our policy towards foreign animal diseases, such as foot-and-mouth disease and African swine fever.

Rock gave a speech Wednesday addressing this issue entitled “Controlling Epidemic Foreign Animal Diseases.”

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“Biological weapons, or the use of biological agents as weapons, … are difficult to get a handle on because they replicate. You can know exactly how much radioactivity you have, and it doesn’t change. But with biological weapons it’s more complex because biology’s complex,” Rock said.

Before coming to the University, Rock researched at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, an offshore institution under the Department of Homeland Security, where most of the country’s work on foreign animal disease takes place.

“This is an emerging area that has some significant questions that really need to be thought about,” Rock said.

One of the most important areas is quick identification of a disease to prevent a large outbreak. In 2001, an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the United Kingdom was not detected for approximately a month, resulting in the loss of 25 billion pounds and the slaughter of at least 10 million animals, perhaps more. After a certain number was reached, “they stopped counting,” Rock said.

The recent increases in science and technology allow scientists to research much more about infectious diseases than ever before and utilize that knowledge to better combat epidemics.

“The ability to have rapid detection and the ability to communicate that information in real time will allow decision makers to target their resources to really deal with infected animals,” Rock said. “That’s going to really reduce the scope of these outbreaks.”

Professor Rock’s lecture was hosted by the program in Arms Control, Disarmament, and International Security, which is holding a seminar series this fall entitled “Biodefense and Emerging Health Policy Issues” as a lead-in to a spring conference aiming “to contribute to and shape dialogue about a variety of questions relevant to biological risks,” ACDIS Associate Director Matt Rosenstein said.

The ACDIS, formed in response to the nuclear threat of the Cold War, is “changing now more than ever” Director Julian Palmore said, in response to increased biological risks after events such as the Anthrax attacks, West Nile outbreaks, SARS and avian flu.

“Many of the most potentially dangerous problems facing humanity … can best be tackled with a complement of technical expertise and familiarity with politics, policy making and international relations,” Rosenstein said.

The MacArthur Foundation recently distributed millions of dollars to institutions, including the University, in order to close any gap between policy making and scientific research.

“It’s incredibly important that there is scientific input into policy issues, that the policies are based on sound science,” Rock said.

Rock, who has only been at the University for six months, hopes to continue work on viral pathogenesis, focusing on the herpes virus and poxviruses, and develop natural host models.

“We think by understanding the mechanisms of disease, one is going to be able to control disease control strategies,” Rock said.

ACDIS’ next lectures in the series will be given on Nov. 2 by Professor Steven R. Blanke about “Applications of Research for Bioterrorism Reduction” and on Nov. 9 by Professor David Fidler about “Germs, Norms, and Power: The Biosecurity Imperative and International Law.”

Both lectures will be held in room 333 in the Armory at 4 p.m.

“It has really been a superb series so far, and among other things has demonstrated the amazing depth and breadth of expertise in these areas on the UIUC campus,” Rosenstein said.