Since 9-11, various government officials have warned about the possibility of a terrorist attack using a radiological weapons (say, a "dirty bomb"), or an actual nuclear device. It remains one of the most frightening scenarios for those charged with keeping us safe.
But such warnings often carried caveats, to mitigate public fears. For example, despite Al-Qaida's demonstrated interest in nuclear and radiological weapons, we were told it would "be difficult" for terrorists to fabricate or obtain such devices, and smuggle them into America for detonation. The government has also spent freely in an effort to deter potential terrorist attacks using nuclear or radiological weapons, investing hundreds of millions of dollars into detection technology alone.
Some of that investment was on display in the Atlanta area last month, as federal, state and local agents scanned hundreds of trucks along Interstate 20, looking for radiological material. The event, which lasted for several days, was described as an "exercise." A few analysts expressed doubt about that explanation, given the scope of the drill, and the fact that continued during the Atlanta rush hour, snarling traffic for miles on either side of the checkpoints.
And federal preparations for the unthinkable aren't limited to scanners and search exercises. There's been a flurry of activity in recent months surrounding a new drug called CBLB502 and a company called Cleveland BioLabs. Less than two weeks ago, the Food and Drug Administration took the unusual step of labeling CBLB502 as an "orphan drug," reserved for medications used to treat rare diseases and conditions. The orphan drug designation came only four months after the FDA granted "fast track" status for CBLB502, accelerating its development and potential introduction.
Why those designations for Cleveland BioLab's new product? Because CBLB502 is the only drug available to reduce the risk of death due to total body irradiation. The most likely cause of that condition: a radiological or nuclear disaster.
While orphan drug status is often reserved for medications with limited market potential, Cleveland BioLabs has already found a buyer for CBLB502: the U.S. military. Back in September, the Pentagon gave the firm a $14.8 million contract for an injectable form of the drug, to protect troops during a nuclear catastrophe. That contract allowed Cleveland BioLabs to complete more tests and the application process with the FDA.
Since Congress passed the Orphan Drug Act 27 years ago, less that 250 new medications and treatments have reached the market, so that means CBLB502 is in very select company. It is the first designed to combat the effects of a massive radiation dose.
The rush to get the drug on the market raises a rather obvious question. The threat of a nuclear or radiological attack by terrorists has existed for more than a decade. If their capabilities in those areas have remained rather crude, why expedite production and introduction of CBLB502? Why not spend the money on more pressing homeland security needs?
The answer can probably be told by intelligence dispatches that haven't been featured in WikiLeaks. Based on the recent spate of CBRN exercises (and the accelerated introduction of CBLB502), it appears the feds are more concerned than ever about the possibility of a terrorist attack, using a nuclear bomb or a radiological device. And, since the drug is used for treatment after radiation exposure, the government isn't taking any chances. Doses of CBLB502 will be administered to military personnel responding to a nuclear or radiological attack, allowing them to do their job in the days following the catastrophe.
Production of the drug also affirms our worst fears about that scenario. Despite all the equipment, all the personnel and all that money, the terrorists still have a reasonable chance of success, once they get a dirty bomb (or a full-up nuke) in our territory. That's why the crash program for CBLB502 is clearly aimed at the aftermath. From the homeland security perspective, it makes sense to prepare now, for an attack that may be on the way, and could very well succeed when the elements come together.
One final note: some reports peg the government's initial order of the drug at 37,000 doses. That quantity is sufficient for military responders, but not for civilians living in the disaster zone. Without larger purchases, civilians exposed to high doses of radiation during terrorist attacks will be on their own. Welcome to government-run healthcare.
ADDENDUM: Here's another element of this crash program that we find rather revealing. While Al-Qaida's interest in WMD has never waned, there is no evidence of a recent breakthrough in terms of their capabilities to produce such weapons. The government's rush to get CBLB502 into production suggests a growing concern over bin Laden simply purchasing the needed weaponry from Iran or friendly elements within the Pakistan military. And judging by the timeline for the anti-radiation drug program, U.S. officials see a rapidly escalating CBRN threat against the homeland over the next five years.