Most disasters of similar severity can't be averted but with proper preparation, loss of life can be minimized. With enough life boats, the Titanic would be just another sunken ship. With a proper levee, Katrina would have been just another big storm.
Since last weekend, news coverage has been consumed by an earthquake of unprecedented magnitude and an ensuing tsunami, followed by multiple breakdowns in nuclear electrical generation plants.
The earthquake and tsunami are estimated to have taken close to 10,000 lives, but it is the breakdown of the nuclear plants that has captured most of the attention. Though most natural disasters have the half-life of one news cycle, the Fukushima disaster could be with us for as long as the half-life of an encapsulated reactor.
As people who have spent time in Japan, studied Asian society and been trained in defense against radiation events, we believe that it is reasonable that the Japanese government is carefully managing the release of information about this event. In a society that is used to conformity and cooperation, a breakdown in social predictability could cause widespread panic.
By the same token, the Japanese government and Japanese engineering are not to blame for what is happening. The sequence of events was unforeseeable and engineering for an earthquake of unprecedented size was unimaginable. But as a consequence of the disaster, a peacetime radiation tragedy is a strong possibility and there is no approved medicine to meet the threat of widespread radiation sickness.
The United States is not immune from a similar nuclear power plant accident. We have slightly more than 100 nuclear reactors generating electricity in the U.S., some of which are near known geological faults.
Several radioactive countermeasures are now in development, but none has been approved for use in a nuclear disaster. Once approved, a radiation countermeasure could be stockpiled for use in the event of a Fukushima-like emergency or a terrorist attack to treat military personnel and civilians exposed to high doses of radiation.
And even though these medicines have a secondary use, to increase the amount of radiation that can be given to cancer patients, they don't have the billion-dollar revenue potential that attracts investors and research agreements with large pharmaceutical companies.
In 2004 the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) was created by Congress with a $5.5 billion budget to purchase medical countermeasures from companies to meet natural disasters like pandemic flu and man-made disasters like radiological contamination.
Though BARDA has the funds to purchase biothreat countermeasures, the number of companies that can actually supply them is limited and even then, those available products are in early clinical development.
This is where government can and must be involved, to foster development of countermeasures to natural and man-made disasters, to prevent disabling disease and potentially avert the threat of death. Developing new medicines can take decades and cost hundreds of millions of dollars. But there is no coherent funding system for medicines to meet the kinds of disaster that BARDA is compelled to prepare for.