Death in the air
 

Riddle of R & L3. Stroke of genius?4. Attitudes are a' changin'1. Bioterrorism -- real or imagined?

2. Do-it-yourself?

3. What to do?

4. A disastrous history

5. The deadly bugs of war

Marines put the finishing touches on a giant catapult with a 21-foot throwing arm. Devices like this, properly called a trebuchet, were used to loft diseased animal parts into besieged cities during the Middle Ages.
Sgt. Ken Griffin U.S. Marine Corp

 

 

Preparing biological weapons can be long and difficult.

  Many threats. Few victims -- yet
Giant erector-set machine with arm straight up. Bioweapons may be almost as old as the spear and the stone. Dumping diseased sheep into wells, or catapulting anthrax-ridden cattle parts at the enemy, were apparently regular parts of ancient arsenals.

Certainly -- details to follow -- the English used smallpox-infected blankets to kill Native Americans during the 18th century, contributing to an ongoing a holocaust in the New World.

Just as nuclear bombs kill with radiation long after the explosion, biological weapons may keep killing long after the first epidemic. Indeed -- and in this respect bioweapons seem uniquely horrible -- the dying may actually expand as the disease spreads through a population.

Given that "potential," why haven't humans made more use of pathogens in war?

Fear of infecting your own side. (Obviously. Biological weapons are less user-friendly than DOS 1.0.)

A moral revulsion toward weapons banned by the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention -- possibly.

Practical obstacles to their use -- conceivably.

This last roadblock impresses some who are alarmed by the prospect of bio-terrorism. "I'm confident that it's difficult to do," says Barbara Rosenberg, a research professor of microbiology at State University of New York at Purchase, and chair of the Federation of American Scientists' group on verification of the biological weapons treaty. "I've spoken to experts in the U.S. Army infectious disease program. They all agree that it's very, very, very unlikely that a terrorist could carry out an attack without being supplied or trained by a country that had the expertise."

Crude bioweapons may be as simple as heaving dead cows at an enemy, but you can't cause massive casualties unless the agents have been tailored for delivery, or, in the jargon, "weaponized."

Tiny rods with misshapen ends.Anthrax bacteria under a microscope.
Defense Technical Information Center.

Weaponizing is long and difficult. You must grow and store large quantities of virulent pathogens without killing yourself, and then infect the enemy. As Rosenberg says, you must "deliver the proper droplet size, maintain viability under ultraviolet light (sunlight), and cover the right area with the right dose, taking into account weather and winds, which you can't know in advance."

One sign of the weaponization problem, she says, comes from the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo, which killed 12 with sarin, a chemical weapon, in the Tokyo subway in 1995. The group had microbiologists, a reputed $1 billion bankroll, and good laboratories, yet nobody is known to have died from their repeated forays with biological weapons. (They did manage to kill some birds with anthrax in 1993, however.)

Vending a vile vial
Dennis Maki, head of the section on infectious diseases at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Hospital, agrees that independents aren't likely to succeed. "If terrorists had to start from scratch, and obtain cultures and develop ways to deliver and aerosolize agents, I'd agree wholeheartedly."

Scientist working with test tubes.Scientists work on ways to develop and control biological agents.
Center for Disease Control.

Unfortunately, he says that's not the whole story. "There are huge amounts of weaponized biological agents in the world. The Soviets had a huge, and I mean huge, biowar program for over 50 years. By the early 1980s, there were 65,000 scientists and support personnel. With certainty they weaponized a dozen agents. Anthrax and smallpox were weaponized by the tons in bombs, artillery shells, all kinds of potential delivery systems."

Anthrax is a cattle disease, but if you think it only affects Holsteins and heifers, consider the failure of a filter in a Biopreparat facility in 1979. The little snafu released 100 grams of anthrax spores, killing 75 people around Sverdlovsk, and even cattle 30 miles downwind. All that was caused, Maki says, by a bunch of anthrax spores "no bigger than a little pile of salt on your hand."

Large pox
To grasp the lethality of smallpox, another favorite biowar "tool," Maki points to epidemics in Europe during the 1960s and 1970s. The disease spread to health care workers and even people without direct contact with patients. Before vaccination, smallpox killed between 20 and 30 percent of patients.

Whole upper torso and face are covered with pox marks, circular lesions. Smallpox is deadly and disfiguring.
Cheryl Tyron Centers for Disease Control.

A sad irony helped make the smallpox virus a potent biological weapon. In 1979, the deadly pox became the first and only disease to be eradicated worldwide -- after a campaign by the World Health Organization.

Even before 1979, many nations halted vaccinations, and by now, Maki estimates 60 percent of the world population is unvaccinated. Although vaccine protection tapers off with time, the disease is still more deadly to the unvaccinated. Maki notes that countries with high birth rates and a relatively young population, including many in the Middle East that have supported terrorism, would suffer most from smallpox attacks.

Nightmarish know-how
As we've stressed, biowar is not just a matter of pathogens -- research into production, storage and delivery are probably more important. And thus the Soviet biowar program may pose the biggest threat -- expertise.

Maki, for one, finds the idea that bioterrorism is too complex for stateless terrorist groups to be "frighteningly naive." The giant Soviet program alone, he says, could supply organisms, dispersal mechanisms, and most important, scientists, to a globe full of committed terrorists.

The same fact disturbs Richard Pearlstein, who studies terrorists rather than pathogens at Southeastern Oklahoma State University. "Many of the scientists left that program and defected. The program was not being funded. I can't name names, but I do know that many are under- or unemployed, and are free to sell their skills to highest bidder. It's dangerous: They are not simply microbiologists or theoreticians, but are individuals who were paid handsomely to research how to deploy these weapons."

Shoot me. Can't vaccines protect?

 

 

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