Harvard Sponsors BioSecurity Conference

Biosecurity professionals from around the world came together last week for BioSecurity 2002, the first-ever global conference on biosecurity and bioterrorism.

The four-day Las Vegas conference, sponsored in part by Harvard Medical International, Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health (SPH), brought together more than 1,000 individuals from the fields of science, medicine, government, public health and law enforcement—including a number of Harvard administrators and professors, according to Miles F. Shore, Bullard professor of psychiatry and vice-chair of the BioSecurity program committee.

Conference sessions addressed four primary areas—the science of biodiversity; surveillance, biodetection and early warning systems; planning and preparedness; and consequences management.

In addition, the California-based Annenberg Center for Health Science sponsored a special forum to examine the national immunization policy, vaccines that are currently available and emerging viral threats.

Conference organizers said the event, which resulted from nearly eight months of planning, was successful.

“We wanted to have a kind of meeting that people all over the country would find useful, because people all over the country have their own agendas and their own meetings, and we wanted to bring them together,” Shore said. “That seems to have happened.”

Shore added that conference attendance was higher than he had anticipated.

President and C.E.O. of Harvard Medical International Robert K. Crone also said he was happy with the conference.

“I was very pleased and impressed both with the quality of the presenters and the response of the attendees,” Crone said.

While Crone and others said the conference was enlightening, Crone particularly highlighted a keynote address by Israel’s former Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

“Israel has an enormous amount of experience with bioterrorism, and it was very important that he relayed his experience,” Crone said.

Shore also said the Israeli delegation was particularly important to the conference’s success.

“A colleague of mine who was my student at the Kennedy School two years ago worked in disaster relief in Israel,” Shore said. “He spoke with a Spanish delegate who had questions about the smallpox vaccination, and Israel has experience dealing with that. They educated one another,” he said.

Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis at the SPH David P. Ropeik, who was one Harvard-affiliated presenter at the summit, was particularly impressed with the various perspectives included in the conference’s agenda.

Ropeik, who presented “Risk Communication: Helping Keep Fear of Bioterrorism in Perspective,” said he was eager to participate in the conference because the importance of an individual’s emotional response to terrorism is often overlooked in the discussion of bioterrorism.

“A lot of discussion about how to deal with terrorism overlooks the science of risk perception, which is the way humans decide what to be afraid of and how afraid to be,” Ropeik said. “The terror of terrorism poses very real risks. It was made quite clear that this is not a theoretical exercise; this is a real world exercise, and I am heartened as a citizen to see all that is being done.”

Other participants added that the discussion of other issues that receive little attention, such as agro-terrorism, were enlightening.

Conference organizers said the first summit was so successful that it will be held annually.

“We are going to do a similar program next fall on the East Coast, and we hope to initiate smaller programs in secondary cities throughout the country,” Crone said.

Although Shore said the exact date and location of BioSecurity 2003 have yet to be determined, he hopes the conference will be held in Washington.