Bioterrorism attacks inevitable, expert warns

Chronicle Staff

By Ester Khachtryan

An infectious disease specialist warned upper school students and faculty that biological attack by terrorists is likely within the next 10 years at the Brown Family Speaker Series assembly Monday, April 19.

A world-renowned epidemiologist, Dr. Peter Katona (Karly ’01, Lindsay ’03 and Joey ’06) was the 10th speaker in the Brown Family Speaker series, which was established in 2000 by Linda and Abbott Brown (Russell ’94 and David ‘96).

The speaker series brings one notable speaker to the Upper School each year.

Katona is an associate professor of clinical medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, and is board certified in Infectious Disease as well as Internal Medicine.

He has published articles about bioterrorism, among other subjects, and has written a book entitled “Countering Terrorism and WMD: Creating a Global Counter Terrorism Network.”

He is also the founder and president of The Center of Medical Multimedia Education Technology, a non-profit organization that works to teach health care workers about infectious diseases through interactive multimedia.

Katona has also appeared as an infectious disease expert on various television and radio programs.

Coupling his speech with a slideshow featuring captivating images as well as a satiric video of the Public Health Agency of Canada’s advice on sneezing that drew laughs from the audience, Katona spoke to students about the past, present and future of influenza.

In the past, influenza was thought to be caused by poison, miasma, biological chemicals or was designated as a distinct life form. We now know, however, that influenza is a “living, contagious and highly mutative RNA virus,” Katona said.

The pandemic nature of the influenza virus, meaning that the infectious disease spreads over a continent or even the entire world, Katona explained, is caused by antigenic shift which combines two or more strains of a virus to create a new virus subtype.

H1N1 (swine flu) is believed to be one such virus that has undergone antigenic shift since its predecessor viruses caused pandemics in 1900, 1918, 1957, 1968 and 1977.

Katona went on to explain the inherent dangers that would result from terrorists obtaining biological weapons.

If successfully carried out, Katona explained, bioterrorism will produce the next worldwide pandemic.

After the assembly, microphones were set out to give audience members the chance to ask Katona questions.

One student asked whether the Transportation Security Administration has the capacity to look for biological weapons.

Katona responded that there is currently no way to screen such weapons since a virus can be placed in a simple flask.

Another question was whether or not Katona thought that there will be a bioterrorist attack within the next 10 years.

Katona believes that there will be an attack, he said.

Immediately following his presentation, Katona ate lunch with one of Blaise Eitner’s AP Biology class in Feldman-Horn Gallery, giving the students the opportunity to ask further questions in a more casual setting.

“It worked nicely with the curriculum of biology to have lunch during this week because we are just finishing the immune and endocrine systems, which correlated with his speech about pandemics, infectious disease, and bioterrorism,” biology student Jacqueline Feiler ’10 said.

In attendance at the lunch reception were Katona and his family, Eitner’s class and additional faculty members.

Eitner’s class was split between two tables. Katona ate lunch at one table. Then Katona switched tables to talk to the other half of the class during dessert.

“One thing that stood out in his speech was the all-encompassing consequences of a biological attack, in that it would combine fear, break down of the economy, distrust of the government and other countries, global climate change, disease…a whole list of disasters,” Feiler said.

Before the assembly, Katona spoke to David Hinden’s fourth period Genetics and Biotechnology class.

Katona described to the class the conflict between national security and freedom of expression in the realm of science.

Katona presented a hypothetical situation in which a newspaper editor is faced with the decision whether or not to publish an article on how to make anthrax.

Katona used the hypothetical editor’s moral and professional dilemma to discuss the policy behind balancing public safety and free speech.

His overarching message to students was that biological weapons are a real and impending threat, but that “we will get through it.”