Delving Deeper: Everything You Want to Know about PHSBPRA (Part One!)

By GMU PhD Student, Yong-Bee Lim

“Bioterrorism is a real threat to our country. It’s a threat to very nation that loves freedom. Terrorist groups seek biological weapons; we know some rogue states already have them…It’s important that we confront these real threats to our country and prepare for future emergencies.” – George W. Bush, 06/12/2002

I.  Introduction: Biosecurity or Bio-insecurity

Following the back-to-back tragedies of 9/11 and the Amerithrax Letter attacks, the United States (U.S) government realized how ill-prepared it was to handle the challenges associated with preparing for, and responding to, acts of terrorism. The Amerithrax Letter attacks, which successfully managed to infiltrate targeted congressional buildings, highlighted the inadequacies of security, preparedness, and response policies relating to bioterrorism events.[1] Thus, introduced in the immediate wake of the attacks and signed into law six short months later, the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002 (PHSBPRA) promised to be a major tool in the federal government’s fight against bioterrorism.

However, like many bills proposed and ratified in the wake of 9/11, unintended consequences arose from the PHSBPRA that have ultimately undermined U.S. national security against bioterrorism. In conjunction with the Uniting (and) Strengthening America (by) Providing Appropriate Tools Required (to) Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism of 2001 (USA PATRIOT Act), the PHSBPRA has not only undermined domestic national security, but has also contributed to the tarnishing of U.S. prestige in the international arena. Domestically, a combination of increased funding for biodefense research on select agents and insufficient measures in certain security areas have compromised laboratory security by increasing risks for laboratory incidents and insider threats;[2] however, other security areas were overly regulated, which prompted the loss of foreign technical workers as well as creating great impediments in the free dissemination of scientific information.[3] These hurdles continue to impede basic scientific research, which ultimately inhibit the creation of new therapeutics and medical countermeasures (MCMs) to deal with pathogens in the event of a bioterrorist attack.[4]

Internationally, the U.S. had already faced great criticism for rejecting the ratification of generous redrafting of the Biological Weapons Convention. This redraft, commonly referred to as “The Chairman’s Text” sought to accommodate the U.S.’s concerns in regards to verification protocols within the BWC. The international perception following this rejection was that the “U.S. is…taking a position that can only be read as an insistence that other nations should lay themselves open to intrusive inspection, which the U.S. accepts no obligations.”[5] This post seeks to highlight relevant details in the events leading up to 9/11 and Amerithrax, provide an overview of the PHSBPRA, and highlight the consequences following its enactment.

II.  Historical Climate: How Bioterrorism and Bio-preparedness were Perceived Before 9/11 and Amerithrax

While Amerithrax was the major bioterrorism event that launched biodefense considerations to the forefront of American consciousness, bioterrorism attempts and acts have been implemented at various points throughout history and all over the globe. Internationally, both World Wars ultimately contributed to the use of unconventional weapons, which are commonly referred to as “weapons of mass destruction” (WMDs) in the modern day.[6] In regards to biological weapons, glanders was used by German undercover agents to infect the livestock of Allied countries with the highly contagious Burkholderia mallei during World War I.[7] During World War II, the infamous Japanese Unit 731 investigated biological weapons in occupied Manchuria; these investigations included the use of plague and other biological agents on prisoners and Chinese nationals.[8]

In an age of asymmetric warfare, focus of potential biological weapons production and use has shifted from nation-states to violent non-state actors (VNSAs).[9] In the modern day, a Japanese terrorist cult, called Aum Shinrikyo, attempted to manufacture and disseminate biological weapons (including aerosolized anthrax) to bring about an apocalypse.[10] Other groups labeled as terrorist organizations, such as Al-Qaeda, have expressed considerable interest in obtaining biological weapons.[11]

Despite the case studies mentioned previously, the realm of bioterrorism and offensive bioweapon attacks is filled with far more failures than successes. The only successful modern-day bioterrorism attack that tends to be unchallenged was the act of a cult which used Salmonella typhimurium at a salad bar in Oregon to get over 700 individuals sick with severe food poisoning.[12] The cult’s motivation for this attack was to try to get enough individuals sick to take over the local county government.

The paucity of successes in the use of biological weapons was reflected in the paucity of biopreparedness actions and policies in the U.S. pre-9/11. Two biodefense policies followed, but did not result from, the cult’s attack. In 1989, the Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act was passed to pave the way for the implementation of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) in the United States.[13] This act sought to implement the BWC by imposing criminal penalties for violating the articles of the Convention, defining biowarfare terms, and limited possession of biological agents.[14] In 1996, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 was created and passed to curb domestic actions of terrorism, as well as limiting the access to materials with WMD implications.[15],[16]

Following the Amerithrax Letter Attacks, the USA Patriot Act of 2001 went further in biodefense policy by both establishing certain controls over select agents to ensure that no “restricted person” transports, ships, or possess select agents, as well as imposing strict criminal penalties for the possession of certain biological agents or toxins; the only way to avoid criminal penalties is if the reason for the possession of the agent or toxin was for justified prophylactic, protective, bona fide research, or other peaceful purposes.[17]

Pt. 2 Next Week: Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness Response Act of 2002: Purpose and Implementation


Yong-Bee Lim is a PhD student in Biodefense at George Mason University. He holds a B.S. in Psychology and an M.S. in Biodefense from George Mason University as well. Contact him at ylim3@masonlive.gmu.edu or on Twitter @yblim3.

[1] “Biodefense for the 21st Century,” The White House: Office of the Press Secretary, accessed on 02/01/2013, http://www.fas.org/irp/offdocs/nspd/biodef.html

[2] Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, “History of US Biodefense Strategy and Policy” (lecture, Biodefense 609 at GMU, Fairfax, VA, September 5, 2012)

[3] GJ Knezo, “Possible Impacts of Major Counter-Terrorism Security Actions on Research, Development, and Higher Education,” Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service Report to Congress, Library of Congress; 2002

[4] Kendall Hoyt, Long Shot: Vaccines for National Defense (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), Loc 118

[5] “US Policy and the BWC Protocol,” The Journal of the Federation of American Scientists: FAS Public Interest Report, accessed on 01/15/2014, http://www.fas.org/faspir/2001/v54n3-4/bwc.htm

[6] Joseph Cirincione, Jon B. Wolfsthal, and Miriam Rajkumar, Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Threats (Washington, DC: The Brooking Institution Press, 2005): Loc 228

[7] Robert J. Hawley and Edward M. Eitzen, Jr. “Biological Weapons – A Primer for Microbiologists,” Annual Review of Microbiology, Vol. 55 (2001): pp. 235 – 253

[8] Ibid.

[9] Cirincione et al., Deadly Arsenals: Loc 268

[10] Richard Danzig, Marc Sageman, Terrance Leighton, Lloyd Hough, Hidemi Yuki, Rui Kotani, & Zachary M. Hosford. Aum Shinrikyo: Insights Into how Terrorists Develop Biological and Chemical Weapons, (Washington DC: Center for a New American Security, 2011): p. 8

[11] Milton Leitenberg, Assessing the Biological Weapons and Bioterrorism Threat (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. army War College, 2005): p. 26

[12] Jonathan B. Tucker, ed., Toxic Terror: Assessing Terrorist Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000): pp. 115 – 138

[13] “Bill Text: 101st Congress (1989 – 1990): S 993.ENR,” The Library of Congress (Thomas), accessed 01/16/2014, http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c101:S.993.ENR:

[14] Ibid.

[15] “Bill Text: 104th Congress (1995 – 1996): S 735.ENR,” The Library of Congress (Thomas), accessed 01/16/2014, http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c104:S.735.ENR:

[16] Ibid.

[17] “Bill Summary and Status: 107th Congress (2001 – 2001), H R.3162, CRS Summary,” The Library of Congress (Thomas), accessed 03/16/2013, http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d107:HR03162:@@@D&summ2=m&

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