The Likelihood of Bioterrorism and Biowarfare
“A study of Disease – of pestilences methodically prepared and deliberately launched upon man and beast – is certainly being pursued in the laboratories of more than one great country. Blight to destroy crops, anthrax to slay horses and cattle, plague to poison not armies but whole districts – such are the lines along which military science is remorselessly advancing” – Sir Winston Churchill
Bioweapons have often been mentioned in a historical context ranging from 6th, 12th-15th centuries BC to the “Black Death” (plague) of medieval times to intentional Variola major (smallpox) outbreaks of the 16th and 17th centuries among settlers and disaffected Native American tribes to World Wars I and II, to the clandestine research and development programs of nation-states, such as the Biopreparat program of the former Soviet Union, and the offensive BW programs of the West to the 1991 Persian Gulf War and beyond…
Decades of progress in the life sciences, and weapon delivery technologies, have made it possible to industrially cultivate, produce and disseminate pathogenic organisms and biological toxins as weapons of mass effect that can generate high casualty loads and cause great social disruption. The foundations of recombinant biotechnology / molecular biology have made it feasible to design and construct “designer bugs” programmed to be antibiotic or antiviral resistant, circumvent immune system surveillance and defenses, possess enhanced virulence, defy detection and confound diagnosis.
In addition, it is possible to mask an intentional infectious disease release under the guise of a naturally occurring outbreak. While weaponized, military-grade anthrax (Bacillus anthracis) may be the golden model, other infectious diseases, including emerging and exotic ones, such as the viral hemorrhagic fevers, e.g. Ebola, Marburg, Lassa or the Hendra and Nipah viruses may be utilized. As part of their insidious nature, bioagents can mimic common infectious diseases, such as influenza, especially in the early phases making accurate and timely diagnosis more difficult.
The global threat of the use of biological weapons to coerce and intimidate civilian populations or to achieve strategic or tactical goals in warfare remains real and serious. Commencing with the 1990s, and into our post-9/11 climate, bioweapons have been sought after by pre-existing and evolving terrorist factions and rogue nation-states such as Iran, Iraq, Syria and Libya. The dissolution of the former Soviet Union, and an allegedly defunct bioweapons R&D program has resulted in a brain trust of highly talented scientists and technicians willing to sell their expertise to rogue regimes and terrorist organizations.
While the potential for devastating casualties is high, the effective use of biological agents as weapons of terrorism and warfare is contingent on the complex interplay of a variety of factors. Among the various factors, aerosolizing to where particles are respirable and result in pulmonary deposition and retention deep into the lung via inhalation is a desirable quality in the production of a weapons grade biological agent. The environmental stability and persistence of a biological agent are critical in the effectiveness of a dispersal. Meteorological and topographic conditions are yet another set of essential considerations. In current threat assessments, vulnerabilities and likelihood of attack by either state actors or terrorist factions are possible, and eventually, probable.
However, the stakes are high for any nation-state willing to inflict a BW attack against, say Great Britain, the U.S. or Israel, as the response would most likely be swift and devastating, including nuclear response options, once the perpetrators of the attack are identified. In the terrorist realm, low tech disseminations, such as improvised dispersal devices, and even crude contamination of fresh fruits, vegetables or other foodstuffs in marketplaces or buffets may be simple, yet effective methodologies and techniques used by terrorist factions.
The reader may remember the first recorded bioterrorism act in the U.S. as the use of Salmonella typhirium in salad bars in the Dalles (Antelope) Oregon in 1984 by the Rajaneesh cult group which resulted in over 400 cases of serious gastrointestinal illness. In 1994, the apocalyptic Japanese cult, Aum Shinrikyo, utilized a truck mounted dispersal device to disseminate B. anthracis spores in the city of Matsumoto, Japan, prior to their infamous sarin nerve agent attack in the Tokyo subway system in 1995. Fortunately, the cultist -terrorists acquired a veterinary and weak strain of the bacteria making it ineffective as a human pathogen. Aum Shinrikyo went as far as to send a scientific and medical expeditionary team to collect samples of Ebola infected blood during an outbreak to cultivate the virus as a bioweapon agent.
There are valuable lessons to be learned by the aforementioned examples. First, never underestimate the ingenuity and determination of terrorist or extremist groups. Second, the level of sophistication of terrorist organizations has been steadily on the rise, making the possibility of advanced bioweapons development, deployment and use increasingly possible. The argument that homemade explosives, incendiaries and improvised explosive devices are readily available, easy to construct, cost-effective and generate instant and dramatic results in terror scenarios is a worthy one, however, biological agents can be derived and cultivated from just about any environmental media, such as soil, or even unprocessed medical waste. The trick is to cultivate, deliver and disseminate effectively, which meet with a variety of challenges that may be problematic, but not insurmountable. The effects will not be immediate with incubation or latency periods, as opposed to explosive and incendiary devices or even many toxic industrial chemicals or military grade chemical warfare agents, such as the cholinergic neurotoxic agents, e.g. sarin, VX. Even the effective dissemination of the purported most toxic biotoxin, botulinum toxin will not produce instantaneous results and is subject to rapid oxidation in air and denaturation by UV light exposure.
Other factors to consider is that many infectious diseases can be halted by effective medical countermeasures, such as vaccines and antibiotics, and early diagnosis. While, other methods and weapons of terror, such as explosives and IEDs may be readily available, emergency managers, medical planners, first responders, health care and public health professionals must never discount the possibility of a biological or biotoxin attack. The importance of understanding that that the recognition of and preparation for a bioweapons attack will be similar to that for any infectious disease outbreak.
Thus, pandemic influenza planning and preparedness principles and concepts may be extrapolated to bioterrorism events, except that BT/BW events will exhibit intense surveillance and response aspects, as well as joint criminal investigation-epidemiological efforts. Biodefense, whether for intentional or natural occurrences of infectious diseases continues to be vital to national and international health and security. It just may be that the microscopic time bombs that exist may demonstrate their usefulness to the rogue nation-states and the exponentially growing terrorist and jihadi movements as “the poor man’s atom bomb”.