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   Why Bioterrorism is America's Greatest Threat


Why Bioterrorism is America’s Greatest Threat

by Dr. Chris Holmes

It’s not suicide bombers we should fear, but suicide coughers and sneezers.
Despite the recent spate of suicide bombings, biological terrorism is still the greatest threat. Conventional explosives, ‘dirty bombs’ and chemical weapons all stop at ground zero. But biological weapons could cause a nationwide epidemic. It’s not suicide bombers we should fear, but suicide coughers and sneezers.

Bioweapons are relatively easy to produce. Secret labs, say, in North Korea, Libya, Cuba or Iran could be manufacturing plague, anthrax and maybe smallpox right now. In 1999, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency gave a paltry $1.6 million to a handful of scientists and challenged them to set up a secret bioweapons lab. The team ordered equipment and supplies from the internet and within a year were producing two pounds of an anthrax simulant per week at a site in the Nevada desert. The FBI never detected it. Named Operation Bachus, the results were sobering.

Bioweapons are easy to disperse, cause high numbers of casualties, and have high mortality rates. In 1970, WHO estimated that 50 kg. of anthrax released upwind of a city of 500,000 could produce 125,000 cases with 95,000 deaths. This is the same lethality as a nuclear weapon, but at a fraction of the cost. Plague and anthrax could be spread from crop dusters or pilotless drones, or dispersed through subway systems, the winds from the trains scattering the agent city wide.

The situation is not hopeless, and we are not helpless. The same technology used to design new bioweapons can be used to overcome them.

More disruptive than actual casualties from a bioterrorist attack may be the psychological effects. The worried public would quickly clog the health care system. Cases of epidemic hysteria—which mimic the real thing but aren’t—would add further to the overload. Travel and commerce would grind to a halt. The fear from those anthrax-by-mail cases in 2001 (only 5 deaths from 23 cases) and this year’s SARS outbreak (zero U.S. deaths from about 300 cases) demonstrate how pyschologically unprepared we are to cope with bioterrorism.

A greater risk may be bioweapons created by recombinant DNA technology. Imagine this nightmare scenario: a communicable form of anthrax—a germ with the infectiousness of SARS and the killing power of anthrax—is unleashed through infected air travelers. From these few cases, it spreads across the entire country.

Is such a thing possible? Theoretically, it is, and research like it has already been done. For example, during their heyday, the Soviets used this technology to create antibiotic resistant strains of both anthrax and plague and were studying the feasibility of a weaponized Ebola-smallpox virus. An even greater horror were their plans to inject a neurological toxin into plague bacteria; a ‘supergerm’ which would cause the fever, rash and pneumonia of plague, and convulsions and paralysis from the neurotoxin. Finally, it’s possible our current antibiotics and vaccines would be ineffective against these recombinant germs. This is not science fiction. This technology is real.

What are we to do? It is not hopeless, and we are not helpless. The same technology used to design new bioweapons can be used to overcome them, with new vaccines, antibiotics and protective devices. And time-tested public health measures—which contained the SARS epidemic—are still our best first line of defense against future outbreaks. The likelihood of another biological attack is high. We must be better prepared for the next one.

Chris Holmes, M.D., M.S.P.H., is a physician epidemiologist. He has authored two books on bioterrorism. His mystery novel, The Medusa Strain, is being closely followed by his non-fiction analysis on the subject, Spores, Plagues, and History: The Story of Anthrax; both books are published by Durban House, the latter to be available in September, 2003.

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This story was published on July 12, 2003.
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