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Bioterrorism Special Report:
All fall down
by Robert Taylor
One hundred kilograms of anthrax spores could wipe out an entire city in one
go. It's only a matter of time before bioterrorists strike.
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
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,'
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
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,
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 must recognise that the threat of bioterrorism is not a curiosity,
grim reality as we enter the next century,' says Olson. Most importantly,
Olson, Zilinskas and others, public health authorities and emergency services
must start planning now to cope with the aftermath of a variety of biological
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.
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 bound.'
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.
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 industries.
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 (see 'What if . . .'). Instead, the widespread use of
the basic tools of industrial biology has put the power to create
biological weapons in the hands of tens of thousands of people. 'Advanced
biological technologies have spread all over the world,' says Zilinskas.
are many more people who are technically trained, and the methods for
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
do some horrible things.'
Horrible indeed. Bioterrorism is distinguished not only by its mode of
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;
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.
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
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
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
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
non-pathogenic bacterium. All the while you have to protect yourself and avoid
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
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
brew up several kilograms of crude slurry containing billions of spores.
the slurry would be tricky, though not impossible. Freeze-drying-a
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
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
by passing trains would dry them and blow them around, could claim
The Aum Shinrikyo attack on the Tokyo underground fell into this less
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
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
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
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
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
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
In the US, these responsibilities fall to the Federal Emergency Management
Agency and the Office of Emergency Preparedness of the Department of Health
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
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. Rumours are rife that
supplies of antibiotics have run out. The authorities caution against panic.
You know that you and your family have been exposed. .