A Clearly Present Danger

Article excerpt

DONALD A. HENDERSON

Confronting the Threat of Bioterrorism

Serious concerns about the possible use of microbes as weapons of terror have heightened markedly over the past five years. This threat, mysterious and little understood, has spawned a spate of docudramas, books, and speculative scenarios, each conjuring up scarcely believable epidemic disasters. Although many such stories are best characterized as flights of science fiction, it has nonetheless become increasingly apparent that the occurrence of a bioterrorist event is entirely plausible and could be catastrophic. All countries are at risk. Instruction on how to prepare effective weapons is now available on the Internet, as are offers by laboratories in various parts of the world to provide strains of some of the most deadly microbes. Rapid developments in biotechnology are opening new vistas in medicine, but, at the same time, they are unwittingly providing rogue groups and nations with inexpensive tools to fashion new and more potent bioweapons. Meanwhile, during the past decade, large numbers of Russian sc ientists have left the extensive biological-weapons complex of the former Soviet Union and have been actively recruited for work in other countries. Thirty years ago, there were only four countries known to be working with biological weapons. Now, however, there are thought to be as many as 12 to 14.

Assessing the Threat

The United States ended its offensive bioweapons program in 1970. Like most countries, the United States has been slow to consider and implement possible defensive policies against "deliberate epidemics." Internationally, primary reliance has rested with the 1972 Biologic and Toxin Weapons Convention. This agreement had been signed by most countries but, as was discovered during the past decade, its terms were flagrantly violated both by Iraq and the former Soviet Union. Although the Convention mandates that no country undertake research on or production of biological weapons, there are no provisions or procedures for verification and enforcement. Countless meetings over a period of many years have so far failed to identify suitable mechanisms that countries could agree upon. Regrettably, the only other international initiative relating to biological weapons is an intention by the World Health Organization to issue a comprehensive booklet dealing with biological and chemical weapons in fall 2001.

A new perspective on the threat is provided by a recent report of the US Commission on National Security in the 21st Century. It singles out bioweapons as perhaps the greatest threat that the United States might face in the next century. Admiral Stansfield Turner, former Director of the US Central Intelligence Agency, believes that, besides nuclear weapons, the only other weapon class with the capacity to bring the nation past the "point of non-recovery" is biological weapons. In 1993, the US Office of Technology Assessment illustrated this threat in their estimate that 100 grams of anthrax released upwind of a large American city--say Washington, DC--could cause between 130,000 and three million deaths, depending on weather and other variables. At the high end, this degree of carnage is of a magnitude comparable to that caused by a hydrogen bomb, far exceeding what a chemical weapon could do. There is no doubt that biological weapons can be effective, and their utility has been demonstrated by all possible m eans short of war.

Heightened interest in bioterrorism by a number of nations can be attributed in significant part to the massive research and development program in this field conducted by the former Soviet Union. In the early 1990s, the West first learned from high-level Soviet defectors that in 1972, when other countries were ending their programs, the Soviet Union opted to expand and modernize its biological-weapons program and to begin to develop genetically engineered pathogens that could serve as weapons. …