- One hundred kilograms of anthrax spores
could wipe out an entire city in one go. It's only a matter of time before
- Since the end of the Cold War, the Western
world has been experiencing an unaccustomed respite from the fears of large
scale violence. No longer do two superpowers appear ready to bury civilisation
under a barrage of nuclear missiles.
- Strategic bombers, once perpetually on
patrol, are parked in their hangars. The threat of Armageddon has faded.
We ought to be safer. Safer, perhaps, but not safe. Military analysts warn
that we should now be on our guard against a new type of savagery that
kills civilians but spares their homes and offices, strikes without warning,
and against which there may be no defence. What is more, although this
threat requires no radically new technology, the laboratories of academia
and the biotech industry indirectly contribute to its development. The
threat is bioterrorism.
- A few hundred kilograms of a properly
'weaponised' bacterial preparation, carefully dried and milled to a precise
particle size, has the potential to wipe out the inhabitants of an entire
city in a single strike. A nuclear bomb in the hands of a deranged person
has long been the stuff of nightmares, but the materials needed to make
such a device are hard to obtain and exceedingly tricky to assemble. Biological
weapons are not nearly so difficult to manufacture.
- Many experts say that it is no longer
a question of whether a major bioterrorist attack will occur, but when.
'It is really a matter of time,' says microbiologist Raymond Zilinskas
of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute in College Park,
who participated in the UN's hunt for Iraq's biological weapons after the
Gulf War. 'I don't understand why it hasn't happened already.'
- Two factors make the threat of a bioterrorist
attack greater than ever before, says Kyle Olson, a chemical and biological
weapons analyst at TASC, a firm of defence consultants in Arlington, Virginia.
First, the unspoken taboo that previously dissuaded terrorists from using
chemical or biological weapons against civilians has now been broken. On
20 March 1995, the nihilistic Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo unleashed nerve
gas on the Tokyo subway, killing 12 people and hospitalising five thousand.
Aum was also developing biological weapons. Second, with the explosive
growth of basic biological research and biotechnology, what was once regarded
as esoteric knowledge about how to culture and disperse infectious agents
has spread among tens of thousands of people.
- Grim reality
- People must recognise that the threat
of bioterrorism is not a curiosity, but a grim reality as we enter the
next century,' says Olson. Most importantly, argue Olson, Zilinskas and
others, public health authorities and emergency services must start planning
now to cope with the aftermath of a variety of biological attacks.
- Biological weapons have been with us
for half a century or more, but military commanders consider them too unpredictable
and slow-acting, preferring the touch-of-a-button reliability of explosives.
What is more, the international condemnation that the use of biological
weapons would provoke gives any rational military strategist pause. Biological
weapons are also an unlikely choice for most politically inspired terrorist
organisations. 'Traditionally, political terror groups are trying
to get a seat at the table and to establish the legitimacy of their cause,'
says Brad Roberts, a biological weapons expert at the Institute for Defense
Analyses, a think-tank in Alexandria, Virginia. That goal would not be
met by resorting to bioterrorism.
- Nonetheless, terrorist experts fear that
the probability of a surprise biological attack on an unprotected city
is higher today than ever before.
- Many point to a new brand of terrorism-epitomised
by Aum Shinrikyo-that lacks the restraints imposed by a political agenda.
'There are new actors appearing, individuals and small organisations that
don't seem to care about establishing legitimacy, but just want to strike
a blow in anger and kill as many people as possible,' says Roberts. 'For
them, the calculation of the right level of violence seems to have no upper
- In addition, the number of trained biologists
is soaring. Life science PhDs awarded in the US increased by 30 per cent
between 1975 and 1991 to more than 5700 a year. By 1994 England alone had
5700 biology graduate students. American industry now employs around 60
000 life scientists. There are over 1300 biotechnology companies in the
US and about 580 in Europe; 25 years ago there were none. Moreover, many
less developed countries, including Iraq, have their own biotechnology
- The threat does not come from the fictional
mad scientist engineering a deadly new germ, says Zilinskas, although the
technology to create a Satan bug may soon be within our grasp. Instead,
the widespread use of the basic tools of industrial biology has put the
power to create 'traditional' biological weapons in the hands of tens of
thousands of people. 'Advanced biological technologies have spread all
over the world,' says Zilinskas. 'There are many more people who are technically
trained, and the methods for culturing large quantities of bacteria are
well worked out and commonly employed.'
- Olson agrees: 'A person who is smart,
determined, trained in basic microbiological techniques, and willing to
take a few short-cuts on safety and go at a few technical problems in mildly
unconventional ways, could conceivably do some horrible things.'
- Horrible indeed. Bioterrorism is distinguished
not only by its mode of killing, but also by the potential scale of destruction-thousands
of times as many people as could be killed by a typical car bomb. That
awesome potential has caught the attention of the US government. A 1993
report on weapons of mass destruction by the US Office of Technology Assessment
(OTA) lists the diseases that could be employed as biological weapons.
- They include plague; tularemia, a plague-like
disease; and botulism, caused by a toxin from the common food-poisoning
bacterium Clostridium botulinum. But the most chilling reading in the report
is the story of anthrax, the original biological warfare agent.
- Low-tech weapons
- Anthrax, a disease of cattle and sheep
caused by Bacillus anthracis, can also kill humans. The external form of
the disease, which sometimes strikes people who handle infected fleeces,
causes unpleasant sores. The pneumonic form is far more serious, killing
more than 90 per cent of its victims if left untreated. The key to triggering
the second form of the disease is to create and disperse spore-containing
particles of exactly the right size-between 1 and 5 micrometres-to ensure
that they are retained in the lungs. As few as 8000 spores per person reliably
causes a lethal infection. The spores cross the epithelial lining of the
lungs and travel to the lymph nodes, where they germinate, multiply, and
then spread to the other tissues, releasing toxins as they go. The first
symptoms include vomiting, fever, a choking cough and laboured breathing.
Antibiotics can cure patients in the earlier stages of the disease. Without
antibiotics, death from haemorrhage, respiratory failure or toxic shock
follows within a few days.
- The OTA report emphasised that, for the
most part, transforming B. anthracis into a weapon is a low-tech procedure.
It also noted that on a clear, calm night, a light plane flying over Washington
DC (similar to the one that crashed into the White House in 1994), carrying
100 kilograms of anthrax spores and equipped with a crop sprayer, could
deliver a fatal dose to up to three million people.
- Zilinskas emphasises that making an anthrax
weapon capable of murder on this scale is not a trivial undertaking. But
while it may be much more difficult than building a fertiliser bomb, the
problems are far from insurmountable. The tricky part, he says, is not
culturing the agent, but processing the crude slurry into a form suitable
for dispersal. 'You have to dry it somehow, adjust the particle size, load
it into a canister, and spray it. If you wanted to be sure your preparation
would work, you would also need to test your isolate for virulence, measure
the particle size and perhaps field test your sprayer with a non-pathogenic
bacterium. All the while you have to protect yourself and avoid detection.'
- A project of this complexity would require
months of systematic effort, the practical engineering skills of a clever
back-yard inventor, and luck. These barriers, however, are not impossibly
high. Basic microbiology skills-techniques an undergraduate studying the
subject would be taught-should be sufficient to isolate B. anthracis from
cattle pasture in areas where the disease is endemic, such as small areas
of the US, and larger tracts of land in Russia and South Africa.
- Using this as the starter culture, a
terrorist with a 100-litre culture vessel-about the size of a home fish
tank-could in a few days brew up several kilograms of crude slurry containing
billions of spores. Drying the slurry would be tricky, though not impossible.
Freeze-drying -a procedure in which material is frozen and put under a
vacuum to remove water, and which is used on a small scale throughout the
biotech industry- could be one option. Grinding the slurry powder into
particles of the desired diameter would provide the greatest challenge,
mainly because of the risk of contamination. Indeed, the most likely glitch
all round is that the terrorists become the first victims, or that they
infect their neighbours and give the game away.
- Moreover, Zilinskas says a few essential
details are not commonly known. 'The Iraqis, as far as we know, never mastered
the art of weaponising their bacterial agents, which included anthrax,'
he says. 'Most of what the UN investigators found were crude preparations
mounted on conventional bombs and missiles, which might not have dispersed
very well.' But he notes that less ambitious attacks also pose a threat.
For example, a crude slurry of anthrax spores left in the tunnels of an
underground railway system, where wind created by passing trains would
dry them and blow them around, could claim thousands of lives.
- The Aum Shinrikyo attack on the Tokyo
underground fell into this less ambitious category-and even that was bungled.
Olson, who interviewed cult members in Japan both before and after the
Tokyo incident, says that the attack was hastily planned, the batch of
sarin nerve gas the cult members manufactured was impure, and the dispersal
device was nothing more than a bag punctured with an umbrella tip. Had
the sarin been pure, and the dispersal mechanism slightly more sophisticated,
tens of thousands could have died.
- But John Sopko and his colleagues on
the staff of the US Senate Permanent Committee on Investigations, who were
asked to look into the attack by Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia, found that
despite the cult's ineptitude there was plenty of reason to take notice.
In a report presented last November at one of a series of Senate hearings
on terrorism, they wrote that the cult, which had more than 40 000 members
in Japan and Russia and one billion dollars in assets, had recruited hundreds
of scientists to assist with its 'avowed purpose of plunging the United
States and Japan into a war of 'Armageddon' from which the cult would
arise as the supreme power in Japan.'
- Sopko and his colleagues-not the kind
of people given to sensationalism-also noted that 'although the findings
may initially sound far-fetched and nearly science fictional, the actions
of the Aum . . . create a terrifying picture of a deadly mix of the religious
zealotry of groups such as the Branch Davidians, the anti-government agenda
of the US militia movements and the technical know-how of a Doctor Strangelove.'
A manual on sarin production included the song Sarin, The Brave with the
catchy lines 'Prepare Sarin! Prepare Sarin! Immediately poisonous gas weapons
will fill the place. Spray! Spray! Sarin the Brave, Sarin.'
- Ebola expedition
- The cult also had a large biological
weapons programme, the precise extent of which remains unexplored to this
day. 'There is an Aum lab-now sealed-that was devoted to biological agents,
which has not yet been fully investigated,' says Olson. 'As early as 1990
they were trying to aerosolise botulinus toxin. We think they had anthrax
as well. In 1991, (cult leader Shoko) Asahara led an expedition to Zaire
to obtain samples of the Ebola virus. We have to assume they had progressed
since then, but how far they got we don't know.'
- The Japanese cult is now out of action.
'My concern is (that) new groups will look at Aum Shinrikyo's activities
and ask: 'How could I do this a little better?' ' says Roberts. Compared
with Sarin gas, he says, 'biological agents might look a lot easier to
work with-in terms of access to material, and the level of expertise needed-and
more effective'. Only time will tell whether the Aum Shinrikyo attack will
inspire or deter. But the Japanese tragedy has sparked concern that greater
efforts are needed to prevent and prepare for a bioterrorist attack. On
the intelligence front, the Aum experience is not encouraging. The Japanese
authorities were aware of some of the cult's activities, and were poised
to move against them. But though the US was known to be one of the cult's
avowed targets, John O'Neill, chief of the Counterterrorism and Middle
East Section of the FBI, admitted to the Senate that the cult's activities
'weren't on our radar screen'.
- Apart from acting on intelligence, another
defence would be to restrict access to the tools of bioterrorism, including
starter cultures. In March 1995, Larry Harris, a microbiologist and a member
of the Aryan Nations white supremacist group, used a forged letterhead
and his professional credentials to order samples of Yersinia pestis, the
organism that causes bubonic plague, from the American Type Culture Collection,
a clearing house for microbiological samples in Rockville, Maryland. The
ATCC dutifully mailed the samples, but in the nick of time staff became
suspicious that Harris did not have the expertise to handle plague and
the vials were recovered unopened. Harris is being prosecuted for mail
fraud -owning plague, it transpires, is not illegal in the US.
- In Britain any company that wants to
keep lethal pathogens must prove to the government's Health and Safety
Executive that it has adequate containment facilities. But, according to
spokesman Mark Wheeler, the HSE has no jurisdiction over private citizens.
Lindsey French of the Department of Health confirms that people may keep
lethal pathogens at home. But she says that threats to do harm with those
pathogens, transporting or storing them improperly, or obtaining them by
fraud or theft, are illegal. Not that would-be terrorists need obtain their
pathogens through official channels. If you know where to look, many can
be isolated from the wild.
- But perhaps the most neglected area of
planning is the medical response to an attack. 'The scenario changes with
the agent used,'' says Philip Russell, former commander of the US Army
Medical Research and Development Command in Fort Detrick, Maryland. He
is now president of the Sabin Foundation, an organisation based in New
Canaan, Connecticut, which promotes vaccine use against natural diseases.
'Plague is different from smallpox, which is different from anthrax. We
need a group of folks to go through different scenarios and think about
what could be done other than counting the bodies.' For example, he says,
plans are needed to ensure that large amounts of antibiotics, and properly
trained and equipped people, can be rushed to the scene.
- In the US, these responsibilities fall
to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Office of Emergency
Preparedness of the Department of Health and Human Services, both in Washington
DC. At the moment, although these agencies have adequate plans to cope
with floods, earthquakes, and the occasional car bomb, OEP head Frank Young
told a Senate hearing on 1 November 1995, 'there is no coordinated public
health infrastructure to deal with the medical consequences of terrorism'.
This is not to say there are no plans at all.
- Last June, President Clinton told government
agencies-including the military - to improve their planning for a massive
terrorist strike. But at the most recent Senate terrorism hearing, on 27
March, several key witnesses, among them P. Lamont Ewell, president of
the International Association of Fire Chiefs, questioned whether the new
plans were adequate and whether they had been sufficiently well rehearsed
to cope with a real attack. In Britain, the Home Office takes ultimate
responsibility for preventing bioterrorism and for preparing to deal with
its aftermath. It is characteristically enigmatic. Robert Smith of the
Home Office has 'contingency plans drawn up, and they are ready to be used'.
But he refused to give any details to New Scientist because 'that would
defeat the object of the exercise'.
- In the wake of a major bioterrorist attack,
undoubtedly the contingency plans would be rapidly and publicly overhauled.
Meanwhile, consider this. The mid-morning radio news reports an odd outbreak
of a respiratory disease on the fringes of London. It rapidly becomes the
top news story, first locally, then nationally, as more cases show up during
the afternoon. Hundreds of people turn up at hospitals across the city
gasping for breath. Doctors begin to suspect, and quickly confirm, that
the bizarre disease is anthrax. An extended evening bulletin gives it saturation
coverage. Experts from the Department of Health try to figure out where
the spores came from and in which direction they are spreading. It all
takes time -- time they don't have.