The Secret World of Biological Warfare

These days, The Dalles, OR, is known for its windsurfing. In the mid-1980s, however, it had a very different reputation. Back then, it was the site of the first bioterrorist incident in the United States in modern times.

The Indian cult called the Rajneeshees had come to the end of the old Oregon Trail in 1981, and had established a commune there. Their lifestyle brought them into conflict with the locals, so in 1984 the Rajneeshees decided that they would take over the county. They tried to increase their vote in the local elections by bringing homeless people to live in the area. They also wanted to prevent the hostile local people from voting against them, so they devised a way of making them ill. They mixed up a concoction of germs (in this case, bacteria) and went around to local restaurants, sprinkling it on foods such as salad bar fruits and vegetables, blue-cheese dressing, tabletop coffee creamers, and potato salads. They also tried to infect The Dalles's water supply. All over the town, 751 people fell ill with food poisoning. Nobody died, but more than 40 people had to be hospitalized. The cult used a bacterium called Salmonella typhimurium.

Over 200 years earlier, British soldiers fighting Native Americans presented two chiefs with a lethal gift. In 1763, a British captain reported: “Out of our regard for them, we gave them two blankets and a handkerchief from the smallpox hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect.” Smallpox, a deadly virus, spread from the articles and took hold among the local tribes, killing many Native Americans.

Most recently, the United States was subjected to a campaign of anthrax-laced letters. It began in October 2001, when American Media photo editor Robert Stevens was admitted to a hospital in Boca Raton, FL, vomiting and lapsing in and out of consciousness. Three days later he died, diagnosed as having been infected with anthrax in his lungs.

He had inhaled it from a letter sent to his workplace. His death marked the beginning of a sustained campaign of anthrax letters that killed five people, disrupted the mail for months, and left the American people — already reeling from the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 — feeling very vulnerable.

As these events show, bioterrorists are people who use germs, called pathogens (microorganisms that cause disease), or poisons made by pathogens, to further their political aims. Bioterrorism (“bio” from the Greek root for “life” and “terror” from the Greek root for “fearing”) is distinctive in terms of warfare because its weapons exist naturally. They are alive, which means that they can replicate. Once unleashed, they have lives of their own and are capable of mass destruction, or of dying out before they do any damage. They can be dangerous to those who use them, as well as to an intended target.

Why Bioterrorism?

Terrorists are generally seeking publicity. Traditionally, they have attracted media attention by setting off bombs. The drama, the noise, the debris, the people in shock, the ambulances: All these provide pictures for TV and newspapers. Pathogens, on the other hand, are silent; nobody even suspects that they've been spread around until people start getting sick. So, why would anyone choose to use them?

Pathogens can put people out of action without actually killing them, as in the Rajneeshees incident. But it's not only people who might be incapacitated in this way. Attacking agriculture (cattle and crops) with diseases could cause huge economic losses to farmers and the country as a whole.

Bioterrorism, in theory, also could kill more people than bombs. The word conjures up gruesome images of suffering, pain, and death associated with the great plagues. Some experts have calculated that, pound for pound and under the right conditions, germs could kill more people than thermonuclear weapons!

At the moment, there are indications that terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda are trying to develop bio-agents, including anthrax and pneumonic plague. If they could deliver them, it would probably be only in a crude way. However, terrorist weapons don't have to be good — just good enough.

Attacks and Agents

Pathogens are generally delicate, and often killed by heat or light. To be suitable for use in a bioterrorist attack, they need to survive long enough to reach their target. The population attacked — whether people or animals — will be more vulnerable if it has no immunity and no access to treatment.

The most effective way of spreading germs to the greatest number of people is through an aerosol, the sort of cloud that you spray out of a can of insect repellent. This is not easy to do, because many germs die before they reach their targets. Still, it has the gravest effect on people because they breathe in the germs, rather than have them enter the body through the skin. Anthrax is much more dangerous when inhaled than when people get it in a cut or wound. So is plague. Anthrax is extremely hardy, and a small airplane could spray it over an entire city on an evening when weather conditions were just right.

Anthrax is not contagious: One person can't catch it from another. Each person has to be exposed to it individually. However, another way of attacking people is to let loose a contagious (easily spread) germ. Smallpox is the nightmare scenario. It is a virus that is easy to catch from people who are already infected, and, if left untreated, it kills 20 to 40 percent of the people it infects. Following a World Health Organization campaign to eradicate the disease, the world has been free of smallpox for over 20 years. This means that most people have never been vaccinated against it, and experts disagree about how much old vaccinations would help protect people today.

The Pathogen Plate” lists more bio-agents that could be used in bioterrorism.

Future Developments

Pathogens in their natural form are able to cause sickness and death. In the future, however, they could be made even more suitable for bioterrorism (and biological warfare, generally): more virulent, hardier, unaffected by current medicines, and undetectable by current diagnostic methods. Some bio-agents could even be made so that they would infect only specific ethnic groups.

These developments could come as the result of biologists' growing understanding of how germs are made, and what makes them act as they do. Biologists studying the genetic makeup of germs can work this out, and then learn how to change it. Scientists are divided about how easy it would be to do these things in practice, and about how serious their effects would be, but all agree that the threat possibilities are real and should be taken very seriously.

A Determined Defense

There are many facets of defense against bioterrorism, and you'll learn about some of them in this issue. Scientists need to understand more about bio-agents and how they work, so that they will be able to develop vaccines and other protective drugs, as well as refine detection methods. As a result of 9/11 and the subsequent anthrax attacks, biodefense centers where scientists can do this work are being set up in key medical centers.

By itself, however, knowledge is not enough. Individual countries need to prepare to respond to possible terrorist attacks against them. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, GA, monitor infectious diseases to identify outbreaks at the earliest possible moment and have plans in place to stop their spread.

The Department of Homeland Security oversees national safety, including threats from bioterrorism.

Getting to the cause of the threat is key. All the countries of the world need to work together to increase their understanding of terrorist groups and what motivates them. Injustice lies at the root of most terrorism. It is up to the developed countries of the world to address injustice and take away the causes of terrorism. This will make the world a safer place for all of us.


Vocabulary

  • bacteria: Tiny one-celled organisms. Some bacteria help digest food; other bacteria cause diseases.
  • commune: A small community whose members often share common interests, work, income, and sometimes property.
  • concoction: Something made up of several different ingredients.
  • eradicate: To get rid of.
  • facets: One of many different ways of thinking about something, for example, a perspective.
  • genetic: Of or relating to the branch of biology that deals with how characteristics are passed from parents to offspring.
  • replicate: To reproduce.
  • virulent: Extremely infectious or poisonous.

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Activity

  1. Think about the different life processes of the organisms mentioned in the article—don't forget about people! Why do you think it is important for scientists to study the life processes of viruses and bacteria? What are some of the benefits to society when scientists learn more about viruses and bacteria? Write a few sentences to explain your answer.