The Bioterrorism Threat

Caption: Interpol’ s Bioterrorism Prevention Unit trains operatives from member countries. (Interpol)

Bioterrorism refers to the malicious use of bacteria, viruses or biological toxins, to threaten or cause harm to humans, animals or agriculture, and there is a number of terrorist groups demonstrating an interest and intent to use biological materials as weapons. There are four categories that would be considered for a biological weapon; aerobic bacteria, anaerobic bacteria, viruses and biological toxins. These weapons have a significant fear factor, but in reality would need immense preparation if a mass casualty outcome were desired. The materials are often available, but the difficulty is to have a reliable delivery mechanism.

However, illicit development of the biological content of a weapon can be easily hidden which makes early detection by counter terrorism organisations very difficult. The technology required could be ‘low tech’ compared to the requirements for a chemical weapon. For example, ricin, which can be found in castor beans, is easily extractable without the need for specialist equipment. There is a significant difference in the scale of effort required when it comes to the activities of the state versus those of non-state actors. The terrorist’s goal with the use of these weapons is to create fear and expose the inability of the targeted government to cope with the situation. Transferable micro organisms such as smallpox, Ebola and plague can present the challenge of spreading beyond the initial target group and the further impact on additional waves of infected victims when chemical and radiological weapons do not present this possibility. Small pox has been eradicated since 1980 and only two samples are known to exist, one with the Russian Government and the other with the US Government and it is extremely unlikely that a non-state actor could access these last remaining samples.

However, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has stated that 50kg of weapons-grade B anthracis spores released in an aerosol attack will kill 125,000 people in a city of 500,000 inhabitants. To make an “effective” bio-weapon, the anthrax has to be prepared in a way that will make it hang in the air from an aerosol, in sufficient quantities that it can be breathed in and cause disease. Loading it on to a fine powder could do this but the powder itself would have to be treated so that it is electrically neutral, does not stick to surfaces and stays airborne for longer.

A strain that is more resistant, or has been altered to be more resistant, to treatment from antibiotics will also have more damaging effects. A preparation of the anthrax that met these criteria could be described as “weapons-grade” and its use could indicate state involvement in any attack because of the necessary expertise and funding that would be involved.

Other challenges with biological weapons remain. Firstly, if the intended outcome is mass casualty then weapons grade pathogen is required. Attaching biological material to a conventional bomb would result in an explosion which at the same time neutralises the biological threat. For a terror impact and low casualty rate then contamination of food remains the simplest method.

In July 2015 WHO animal health and national defence officers called for wider international co-operation to avoid the spread of animal diseases that could be used as biological weapons.

According the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) Sixty percent of human diseases come from animal agents and 80 percent of these agents could be used for bioterrorism are of animal origin. Bernard Vallat, director general of the OIE said, “History has shown animal diseases have often been used as weapons before. Advances in genetics can now make them even more harmful. So we are calling for further investment to be made at national level on bio-security.” Diseases have spread from animals to humans for millennia, with latest examples including the bird flu virus that has killed hundreds of people around the globe. The OIE and the WHO have warned animal disease agents could escape naturally, accidentally but also intentionally from laboratories, to be used as bio-weapons. Security breaches involving animal diseases are not rare.

The 2nd OIE Global Conference on Biological Threat Reduction took place in Ottawa, Canada, from 31 October to 2 November 2017. This event examined the recommendations and activities undertaken since the 1st Global Conference on the subject that took place in June 2015 in Paris. The Paris conference was the first to gather experts from the OIE, WHO, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), and the international police agency Interpol.

Interpol is the world’s largest international police organisation, with 190 member countries and it’s Bioterrorism Prevention Unit works with law enforcement, health, academia and industry, to tackle bioterrorism. Over the last few years, Interpol has increased its capacity to assist member countries in minimising and counteracting threats of a bioterrorism act and establish effective countermeasures as part of a global security strategy.