*Toward A Sustainable Society*
Avoiding Biological Pollution:
Terrorism and Warfare Hazards
from Biological Agents
Stuart Johnson, EdD
We are determined for the sake of all mankind, to exclude completely the possibility of bacteriological agents and toxins being used as weapons.
>From the Preamble to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, 1972
How Smallpox, Officially Eradicated 20 Years Ago, Became the Biggest Bioterror Threat We Now Face. (Preston, Demon in the Freezer, 1999)
Between 3 and 12,000 years ago the Variola smallpox virus jumped from some unknown animal into its first human victim. Since then it has killed more people than the Black Death of the Middle Ages--300 million people in the 20th century.
But isn’t it safely gone? In 1977, after 11 years of pursuit and isolation, DA Henderson and colleagues in WHO’s Smallpox Eradication Unit finally and officially broke the last infection link in Rahina, a 3-year old Bangladesh girl.
Most people today have no immunity since the vaccine wears off in 10-20 years. Eight million doses of vaccine exist now, perhaps capable of being diluted to 80 million. But one outbreak anywhere in the world is considered an emergency. In 1948, 13 cases of smallpox in New York resulted in the use of 6 million doses of vaccine.
Presently, smallpox lives officially in only two repositories on the planet: 1) a freezer at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, and 2) a freezer at the State Research Institute of Virology and Biotechnology, in Novosibirsk, Siberia. So, what’s the problem?
In 1989, a Soviet biologist defected to Britain. After debriefing, British intelligence agents believed they had confirmed that the USSR had biological missiles aimed at the US. Furious, Margaret Thatcher telephoned Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who then allowed a small secret specialist team to visit Soviet biowarfare facilities.
At the main virology complex in Siberia, the team was told that the facility was working with smallpox. They saw chambers where monkeys were exposed to biological agents blown at them with explosives. At later meetings where the Soviets denied producing smallpox virus, DA Henderson concluded the opposite: “I never would have suspected. They made twenty tons -- twenty tons -- of smallpox. For us to have come so far with the disease, and now to have to deal with this human creation . . . It’s a great letdown.” (Preston, 1999)
How extreme, then, is the hazard?
New Hazards Appear. (Microbe data below from Biological Warfare and Terrorism Student Booklet, used in current health personnel prepararedness training by US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases--USAMRIID, Sept 2000)
Acts of domestic terrorism such as the bombing of the NY World Trade Center and the Oklahoma City federal building plus the Tokyo subway sarin gassings and numerous anthrax hoaxes have demonstrated new threats to civilian populations. Bio-hazards for the military appeared after the Desert Shield/Desert Storm actions and following disclosures of sophisticated biological warfare programs in the former Soviet Union. (Preston, Alibek, 1999)
Ten countries around the world currently have offensive biological weapons programs that constitute a serious threat. In 1995, for example, UN Inspectors found that Iraq had developed delivery systems for the offensive use of bacterial toxins and anthrax (from commercial anthrax samples purchased in the US). In 1997, Secretary Cohen also identified Libya, Iran, and Syria as “aggressively seeking” nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.
What are the most dangerous biological agents that we face?
Smallpox. Victims display these symptoms: 7 to 19 days after exposure to the airborne virus, fever appears, with back pain, vomiting, malaise, headache; in 2-3 days, blisters and scabs appear. Death usually occurs in 30 to 50% of cases, or higher for flat or hemorrhagic types. Survivors may be scarred or blinded for life. Beyond immediate vaccination, there is no effective therapy. Antibiotics are not helpful.
Pneumonic Plague (Yersinia pestis bacteria). After 1-6 days, may produce high fever, chills, headache, coughing up blood, and blood poisoning. Usually fatal unless treated within 12-24 hours of first symptoms; death comes from respiratory failure, shock, bleeding. Inhalational Anthrax. Imagine opening a letter and reading: “This letter is contaminated with anthrax bacteria. You’re dead!” The FBI reports many such threats in the US, usually false. Historically anthrax has most often been contracted from hides of cattle, sheep, goats, and horses through scratches in the handler’s skin.
Where offensively released as an aerosol, anthrax spores (rather than the live bacteria Bacillus anthracis) incubate for 1-6 days, and produce fever, malaise, fatigue, with severe respiratory distress. By the time these symptoms appear, treatment is not helpful and death occurs within 36 hours from blood poisoning. There is no evidence of direct person-to-person spread of inhalational anthrax.
Since 1993, 2.3 million American soldiers received shots against anthrax, because of its docu-mented presence in Saddam Hussein’s arsenal. (Alibek, 1999)
Trends that Increase Danger to Society
Population growth increases our hazard. As the Homo sapiens population swells, surging past the 6 billion mark at the millennium, the opportunities for pathogenic microbes multiply. . . While the human race battles itself, fighting over ever more crowded turf and scarcer resources, the advantage moves to the microbes’ court. They are our predators . . . (Garrett, p 619-20)
Economic globalization makes poor countries more vulnerable. Former Center for Disease Control director Dr. William Foege felt that new disease emergence was tightly linked to Thirdworldization: the overall status of health care, immunizations, sanitation, education, and total burden of disease in a society. . . that structural adjustments ordered by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund . . . had severely worsened the human condition and improved odds for the microbes.(Garrett, p 609)
US efforts to breakup the Soviet Union contibuted to the spread of biowarfare research. Ken Alibek is part of the exodus of biologists who came out of Russia following the breakup of the Soviet Union. Scientists found themselves without jobs-- circling the globe with resumes in hand. One can guess that they’ve ended up in Iraq, Syria, Libya, China, Iran, perhaps India. (Scheer, 2000, and Preston, ‘98)
Chemical weapons poison on contact with the skin and their limited effects are tactical. But bioweapons are bacteria or viruses that multiply in humans, cause death, and move on. They can kill huge numbers of people, and serve as good strategic weapons. Nuclear weapons destroy everything. Bioweapons only kill people. (Preston, 1998)
Questions (see answers below):
1. From what source did we learn that “eradicated” smallpox virus was in production?
2. Which agent does not respond to antibiotics?
3. Which agent does not require live bacteria to infect--only the spores?
4. Why cannot society now protect itself from massive infections of smallpox?
5. Which agent is often mentioned in hoax attacks?
6. What agency offers plans for protection in the event of biowarfare and bioterrorism?
7. Why does population growth increase the hazards from biological pathogens?
8. What economic activity increased hazards from biological agents in Third World countries?
1. Soviet scientists who defected
8. Demands by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund on “structural adjustments” that reduce health care expenditures in poor countries.
2. Smallpox virus
4. Immunities faded, and little vaccination available
6. The US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases
7. Increases human density thus facilitating spread of the pathogens.
Alibek, Ken, with Stephen Handelman, Biohazard. NY: Dell Publishing, 1999.
Biological Warfare and Terrorism Student Booklet, US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases--USAMRIID, Sept 2000) http://www.biomedtraining.org/prog_info.htm
Garrett, Laurie, The Coming Plague. NY: Penguin Books, 1994.
Preston, Richard, “The Demon In the Freezer,” The New Yorker, July 12, 1999. http://cryptome.org/smallpox-wmd.htm
Preston, Richard, “The Bioweaponeers,” The New Yorker, Mar 9, ‘98 http://cryptome.org/bioweap.htm
Scheer, Robert, in The Nation, Oct 2, 2000, p 5
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© SR Johnson 2000-2001