Nobelist: U.S. Ill-Prepared
for Biological Terrorism
By Kathleen S. Failla
Nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg, lecturing at the Stamford campus April 11, sounded a wake-up call on biological threats, saying global trends in infectious diseases are poised to inflict huge casualties.
Lederberg, a research geneticist and president emeritus at The Rockefeller University, one of the world's leading scientific institutions devoted to biomedical research, spoke on "Global Infectious Disease and Human Rights." His talk was part of the Sackler lecture series, which brings internationally renowned speakers to the University to discuss human rights issues.
Lederberg won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1958 at the age of 33, for a discovery in the field of bacterial genetics. Since then, in addition to his academic responsibilities, he has become a leading proponent of preventative and defensive measures against biological weapons.
Using the overhead projector and a series of celluloid charts, Lederberg wove a tapestry from research, newspaper articles, and personal convictions on human rights.
His first chart of the evening showed life expectancy in the past century. It peaked in the year 2000, when an American woman could expect to live to age 79.6, and the life expectancy of her male counterpart was 73.8 years. In Uganda, however, the life expectancy of both sexes in 2000 was only 44 years.
Most of the material Lederberg presented, including various charts and graphs on the growing incidences of antibiotic-resistant diseases, was familiar, but it shocked the audience nonetheless. "For many of these infections we have no remedies. There are no vaccines," he said.
His talk called attention to an underlying threat from increasingly serious and more frequent outbreaks of fatal diseases.
Large outbreaks of tuberculosis, malaria, HIV, hepatitis C, and Ebola, to mention a few, have all occurred within the past 10 years and, thanks to globalization, are moving closer
With globalization come increasing connections among populations that span cultural and national borders, a development that could shorten life expectancy. Take air travel, for example. Lederberg said he believes in giving airline passengers "voluntary access to face masks" to shield them from infectious diseases released into the air by coughing and sneezing.
Anthrax, recently so much in the news, was not discussed, but a question from the audience on smallpox revealed a disturbing thought: "We could be in worse shape than ever before in human history," said Lederberg.
He added that the U.S. is ill prepared for the massive vaccinations needed to combat germ weapons.
Lederberg proposed updating the nation's public health and epidemiologi cal surveillance systems, and he called for broadening the research agenda to slow the pace of microbial evolution.
All nations must understand "that the development of biological weapons is something we simply cannot tolerate," he said.
Flashing on the screen a list of rights and freedoms, he said "health as a human right" has to be taken seriously. In America, our ideas about rights to health and access to quality care are deeply ingrained, he said, but they cannot be taken for granted. We must take responsibility for our own health, he added, beginning with preventative measures as simple as good hygiene.
Nonetheless, he noted, our health also depends on the well being of others, even those half a world away.