The Reason Foundation
LOS ANGELES -- SARS wars: how science and technology protect us from government failures
By Ronald Bailey
Thank goodness that SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) broke out in the Genomics Age. The malady has already infected 5,000 people and killed 327 since it broke out in China last year. A decade ago, scientists would likely not have a clue yet as to what was causing the deadly disease.
Prior to 1995, a few genomic sequences of viruses like HIV had been very laboriously and expensively completed. In 1995, the Institute for Genomic Research, the private biotech company headed by Craig Venter in Maryland, began the Genomic Age by producing the first sequence of all the genes of a free living organism, the bacterium Haemophilus influenza. This took 13 months and $900,000. But the pace of discovery in genomics quickly sped up.
Over the past eight years, the process of decoding genomes has become almost routine. Six years after the completion of the H. influenza's 1.8 megabase sequence (a megabase equals one million DNA bases), the first rough drafts of the 3,000 megabase human genome were announced in February 2001. Just this month, the international human genome consortium completed the final draft of the human genome.
Today, some gene-sequencing machines can read nearly two million DNA bases per day, so sequencing something like H. influenza would ideally take a day rather than 13 months.
SARS appears to be caused by a new coronavirus, so called because their outer protein coats look like miniature crowns. They are responsible for about 20 to 30 percent of bad colds. Once the virus had been isolated and sent to Canadian researchers at the Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre in Vancouver, British Columbia, it took them only six days (between April 6 and April 12) to complete the virus's genetic sequence.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta announced its SARS sequence two days later. "Research laboratories can use this information to begin to target antiviral drugs, to form the basis for developing vaccines, and to develop diagnostic tests that can lead to early detection," says Dr. Julie Gerberding, CDC's director.
And the race is on. At the beginning of April, the CDC released a test for the protective antibodies that patients develop as their immune systems fight the SARS virus. This test is not suitable for routine use, but can be employed by public health officials for finding and tracking people who might have been exposed to infected individuals.
Even as the SARS genetic sequences were being announced, researchers in Hong Kong, which has been hit especially hard by SARS, announced on April 15 that they had devised a diagnostic test which they believe can soon be used in doctor's offices for early detection of SARS. The pharmaceutical giant Roche plans to have a commercial version of a SARS test available by July.
Such diagnostic tests will enable physicians to separate out people who are suffering from some other respiratory illnesses and quickly isolate SARS patients so that they cannot pass along their disease to others. This kind of rapid progress is only possible because of biotechnological advances made in the past eight years.
The hunt is also on for antiviral drugs to treat people who have already been infected by the SARS virus. Unfortunately, scientists have yet to find many antiviral drugs that are as effective at killing viruses as antibiotics are at slaying bacteria.
So far medical science has generally had a better chance of dealing with viruses by vaccinating people before they are exposed to them, as with the polio, flu, and hepatitis vaccines. But even at the dawning of the Genomic Age, it would likely take two to three years to develop an effective SARS vaccine, largely due to the testing required to see if works. Furthermore, biopharma companies have little incentive to develop such a vaccine unless the disease is likely to afflict millions of people.
If the epidemic can be contained soon, it simply would not be profitable for biopharma companies to develop a vaccine. Also, the SARS virus can apparently mutate quickly. Thus, a vaccine that protected a patient against an earlier version might not be effective against a newer one. However, as the Genomic Age matures, and disease processes and human immune responses are better understood, vaccine production might profitably be speeded up and even become routine.
Despite all of the scientific and technological virtuosity seen in the rapid response to SARS, it wouldn't have been necessary if the Chinese government hadn't blundered in the first place by refusing to acknowledge the existence of the disease. An early quarantine would have cut the chain of infection and the disease might well have died out.
However, Chinese officials evidently didn't want to mar the Chinese People's Congress meeting or frighten off tourists and investors. This denial gave the disease a chance to spread widely.
Now Chinese officials are scrambling to quarantine people, and that might still work. But fear of SARS is expected to cut China's growth rate by about two percent, costing its economy around $45 billion this year.
The moral of the story? No matter how smart the science and technology available, governments can always screw things up. The silver lining is that advancing science and technology can often cushion us from the even the stupidest government policies.
(Ronald Bailey, Reason magazine's science correspondent.)
The Ludwig von Mises Institute
(The LVMI is a research and educational center devoted to classical liberalism -- often known as libertarianism -- and the Austrian School of economics. LVMI seeks a radical shift in the intellectual climate by promoting the market economy, private property, sound money and peaceful international relations, while opposing government intervention.)
AUBURN, Ala.-- Carving up the homeland security pie
By Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr.
Only to the most naive did the Department of Homeland Security sound promising. To seasoned observers of government, the idea of a new $40 billion D.C. bureaucracy means only one thing: billions for those who somehow manage to get their hands on the cash.
Who are these people? Those who build the building, the bureaucrats who work there, the politicians who allocate the money, the outside companies who get the contracts, and the lobbyists who make the whole system of legal graft work.
In fact, this is the essence and history of all large-scale government reform plans. What begins with promising slogans degenerates rapidly into a cash cow for interest groups who know how to play the game. This was true during the Civil War and the Progressive Era and the New Deal -- when government similarly promised great gains through sweeping reforms that ended up benefiting corporate special interests -- and it is true of the Bush-backed, post-Sept. 11 push for homeland protection.
Here is the plot of the latest caper. After Sept. 11, Bush had the idea that the government ought to make some effort to protect American shores from attack -- a notable change of priorities for a government that manages to spend $2 trillion a year not doing the only major thing the U.S. Constitution says it ought to do. In any case, Bush proposed reorganizing a whole host of agencies into one mega-bureaucracy -- and this despite the enormous failure that Sept. 11 represented for precisely this bureaucratic approach.
We were told that what dozens of agencies and billions couldn't do -- namely stop angry extremists armed with box cutters -- another agency and billions more could do. We were told that this would finally be Republican good government at work. But there is no such thing as "good government," if we think of that phrase as representing a government that just does what the textbook says it is supposed to do: namely, serve the public essential goods without regard to self interest.
All government activities are deeply tainted by the fact that its money is not gained through service but through force via taxation, and it is not doled out based on demonstrated need but arbitrarily based on bureaucratic decision making. There is no escaping this fact, no matter how much people talking about sweeping out corruption or "reinventing" the way government does business.
As Ludwig von Mises said in his book "Bureaucracy," government is not a business so there is no profit-and-loss check on its activities. In the end, everything it collects and distributes is economically arbitrary, but also and inevitably politically influenced. It is not the proverbial man-on-the-street who decides how the money is spent, but those who have connections to the flesh-and-blood bureaucrats and politicians with the power to decide -- and they don't work for free, but instead insist on quid for their pro quo. The result is what is called corruption, or what libertarians recognize as the ordinary business of government.
We are now getting the first glimpse of how the bureaucratic sausage is made. When the Department of Homeland Security was merely the Office of Homeland Security, agency head Tom Ridge surrounded himself by people with credentials for this type of work. According to the New York Times, many of them have left Ridge's inner circle to become lobbyists seeking contracts from the new Department. They cashed in on their new marketability and are now working for established lobbying groups that represent the interests of lawyers, software makers, security firms, and other corporations.
According to politicalmoneyline.com, lobbyist registrations related to homeland security have exploded. The number of companies and firms that use the words "homeland," "security," or "terror" on their registrations have gone from 157 in 2002 to 569 today, and the number is increasing by the day. The shift in priorities of Washington makes it all possible. Clearly, the businesses that make their living from living off others see the main chance here.
The big-firm connection to the Department is a company called Blank Rome Government Relations. It is now staffed by three of Ridge's former aides, including Ridge's former chief of staff. The firm has scheduled a big conference next month at which former Ridge aides will speak at a price, touting their credentials in gaining access to the department. Of course all these aides have their excuses, but the main one is obvious: there is more money to be made in lobbying than in being a bureaucrat.
Some of the people involved in homeland security lobbying include former Clinton drug czar Barry McCaffrey, former defense secretary William Cohen, former secretary of health and human service Louis Sullivan, former transportation secretary Daniel Lungren, and former general counsel of the Immigration and Naturalization Service William P. Cook. As the New York Times notes, one lawyer involved in the racket recently wrote an article called Opportunity and Risk: Securing Your Piece of the Homeland Security Pie.
When revisionist historians look back at the amazing spectacle of government in the post-Sept. 11 era, they will see a process fraught with the lowest form of grubbing. And so long as we are accounting for the work of special interests, consider the billions and billions doled out to defense-industry contractors to make bombs and planes used in wars supported by large industrial interests. In fact, you can safely anticipate that when all the dust settles after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the deep motives for the main players will have nothing to do with stopping terrorism and everything to do with lining their pockets at your expense.
In some sense, we are seeing the repeat of the history of the Civil War, the Progressive Era and the New Deal, periods of massive expansion of government in the name of fixing up society that quickly degenerated into immense special-interest capers. In fact, once you look past the rhetoric, this is precisely what these projects were designed to do, not fix up society but make some people enormously rich at other's expense. To recognize the fraud behind Washington's clichés about public service is not to be cynical; it is just a matter of taking off the blinders.
A huge industry of commentary and analysis exists to do something about the problem of revolving doors and fixers. Plenty of neoliberals are hard at work trying to expose the developing homeland security scandal. For example, government reformer Fred Wertheimer warns: "When you see lobbying firms starting to create whole new departments for the sole purpose of lobbying for homeland security contracts, I think the signal for the American people is to watch out, to be vigilant that their taxpayer dollars for homeland security get the best possible results, as opposed to going to the best Washington lobbyists."
You know what? It's futile. Public vigilance will not stop it. Wishful thinking will not cause a government dedicated to fleecing the public and rewarding its friends to suddenly become angelic. The only way to stop corruption in government is to stop government itself.
As Mises wrote in the 1963/66 edition of Human Action. "There is no such thing as a just and fair method of exercising the tremendous power that interventionism puts into the hands of the legislature and the executive ... Corruption is a regular feature of interventionism."
(Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.)
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