g  e  n  u  i  n  e  i  d  e  a  s
  home   art and
writings biography   food   inventions search
unlikely certainties

Originally published in Business Week Online in May 2007 as "Bracing for Bioterror"
This version was too long to meet their publication standards, but due to the complexity (and controversial nature) of the subject, the longer version is reproduced below:


We buy insurance to hedge against unlikely events such as fire, hurricanes, or burglary. Events that may never happen in a lifetime, and where insurance offers peace of mind instead of a claims check.

But how do we plan for an unlikely certainty—that is, a major event guaranteed to happen, but at an unspecified, perhaps distant time?  Political unlikely certainties include the exact timing of Castro’s death. And global unlikely certainties include a giant asteroid impacting the Earth, wiping out much of humanity.

Because these events are inevitable, we cannot “play the odds”, avoiding the cost of insurance by hoping our house will never burn down. We either plan ahead now, accruing resources and funds to mitigate the disaster’s effects, or “self-insure”, improvising our response after the fact and digging in to savings to pay for recovery. The choice depends on economic impact and cultural prejudice. And isn’t always wise.

Which brings us to the “war on terror”.  A plane hijacking, suicide bombing, and even an atomic explosion on American soil are unlikely certainties. But so is a biological attack. In war, if it can be done, it will be done. So which attack deserves “investment” before the fact?

Casualties in war are inevitable. A plane crash kills a few hundred innocent people, depresses commerce for a month or two, but as we learned from 911, life goes on. An atomic bomb might destroy one city- killing tens of thousands. Unthinkable, but fortunately the damage is local, and again, even as our country mourns, you’d wake up in the morning, grab a cup of coffee and drive to work.

But if present trends continue, within the next decade or so we appear certain to undergo a major biological attack that could kill or injure millions of U.S. citizens throughout the country.  Our centralized distribution networks and global sourcing make us uniquely vulnerable.  A virulent disease carried by airline passengers or through our food distribution network virtually guarantees the nationwide spread of the attacking biological agent within a matter of days.  We’ve already previewed such an event last summer with the spinach e-coli outbreak and the more recent rash of dog and cat deaths via pet food contaminated by some chemical out of China. Don’t you worry it took months to backtrack those poisonings to their source?

Much more devastating than a nuclear bomb, imagine a world where you couldn’t trust the food you eat, the bus seat you ride on or the hand you shake. No matter where you live, no matter how far you run. A biological attack could literally set American back a decade. Atomic bombs pale by comparison.

The tools and knowledge for biological weapons are now widespread, and exponentially becoming simpler, cheaper and more capable every day. Soon they will be within the reach of any dedicated individual. It won’t be a surprise attack. Unlike their fictional brethren, real terrorists know practice makes perfect- especially when resources are limited and the risk of failure are high. In recent years, terrorists have been steadily climbing the ladder of weapon sophistication—from simple shootings, to large-scale explosives and, most recently, to chlorine bombs. Before terrorists attack New York, they will practice in Somalia— an “off-Broadway” tryout if there ever was one. 

Given the potential size of the threat, what is stopping us from acting to prevent it?  One obstacle surely is our collective inability—despite the spinach and pet food contaminations-- to admit we are at war and casualties are inevitable.  Our politicians prefer to spend billions on visible palliatives, like screening airline passenger’s toothpaste tubes for explosives, while almost nothing on screening our food supply. Billions to save a few, and only millions to preserve the American way of life.

A second obstacle is the apparent immensity of the preventative task. Rethinking our vast distribution networks seems an insurmountable problem. Where to begin? Some “green” ideas- like only buying food produced within a 500-mile radius – indirectly help by localizing the food supply, but are too piecemeal to avert damage on their own.

However, as I discussed in earlier columns, expensive programs can be implemented cost effectively if driven by a related, commercial need. And rapidly implemented as well, if guided by wise laws, regulations and incentives. 

( http://www.businessweek.com/bwdaily/dnflash/sep2005/nf2005099_2446.htm and http://www.technologyreview.com/Infotech/12796/ )

One obvious effective solution would be a tracking system meshed into our existing distribution networks.  Such a system would identify toxic or infectious dangers in their early stages, communicate their various locations, then supporting a rapid reaction before the threat spreads.

We already have at hand much of the logistics infrastructure and technology that such a system would require. RFID tags have reached a degree of sophistication where, if we wanted to, we could bar-code all food---whether from tomatoes grown at an Amish farm outside of town or broccoli from Mexico. Similarly, sensors have attained enough sensitivity to accurately identify a wide range of dangerous bacteria and toxic chemicals by smell or even color. If we communicated the collected data via the Internet, expert systems could then quickly identify unusual disease trends.

Aside from protection against bioterrorism, such a system would offer enough value to justify its cost through improved logistics.  Local restaurants and grocery stores could provide assurance they were offering safe food—even food free of accidental e-coli contaminations. Your supermarket could advertise, “Each morning we rescan every product in our aisles to assure you our produce is free of 27 diseases. And we can tell you the exact farm where it was grown.  Enjoy!”  Similarly, such a sensor system would be able to determine whether the 10% of gray-market drugs passing as genuine are safe, and perhaps avoid the tens of thousands of deaths resulting from incorrectly dispensed pharmaceuticals. My bet is that we would regard the interim value—beyond just bioterrorism protection ----of such a system as well worth the cost. And wonder how we ever did without it.

Such a system may appear to belong more in the realm of fantasy than sober planning.  Yet one-time “fantasies”—from landing on the moon to curing disease are becoming reality with ever greater acceleration.  Even collision with a giant asteroid is worth contemplating. In 2029 one is scheduled to graze the Earth by a mere 25,000 miles.  The next time we may not be so lucky.

Greg Blonder is a partner at Morgenthaler Ventures and is based in Princeton, N.J.  Morgenthaler has investments in both RFID and sensor companies.



Contact Greg Blonder by email here - Modified Genuine Ideas, LLC.