The Germ Front: Experts Differ over Whether Chemical and Biological Warfare Pose a Mass Threat-But They Agree That We Need a Stronger Public-Health Response

By Drexler, Madeline | The American Prospect, November 5, 2001 | Go to article overview

The Germ Front: Experts Differ over Whether Chemical and Biological Warfare Pose a Mass Threat-But They Agree That We Need a Stronger Public-Health Response


Drexler, Madeline, The American Prospect


WITH ONE FLORIDA MAN DEAD OF ANTHRAX and another exposed, frightened Americans ant to know if something even worse than he horrific events of September 11 now lies ahead of us. Could terrorists loose bioweapons of mass destruction upon us: anthrax and smallpox, botulism and plague, invisibly airborne? The answer--which is perhaps more frightening still--is that the experts can't say.

This past spring, researching bioterrorism for a book about emerging infections, I spoke to Jonathan Tucker, director of the Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Washington, D.C. Tucker, a thoughtful man who has written recent books about toxic weapons and about the resurging threat of smallpox, told me then that while low-tech terrorist strikes such as food poisonings were always possible, a major bioattack wasn't plausible. In order to inflict large numbers of deaths, Tucker explained, terrorists must possess technical expertise, the organizational discipline to keep their plan secret, and the motivation to kill large numbers of people indiscriminately. When we spoke again in early October, he agreed that the September 11 murderers obviously met the last two criteria. But do they have technical expertise? Are scientists in Iraq or other biowarfare havens tutoring them? No one knows.

However, experts who expect a large-scale attack and those who believe it a remote possibility do agree on two points: The threat of biological weapons is indisputably growing, and our public-health system would buckle under a massive epidemic.

BIOTERRORISM AGENTS KILL IN GRUESOME WAYS--via suffocating pneumonia, septic shock, massive hemorrhaging, or paralysis. At the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the worst of the worst are known as Category A agents. These are the deadly organisms readily spread in the environment or transmitted from person to person that could cause public panic and social upheaval and that require special public-health precautions. Among them are the agents that cause smallpox, anthrax, and plague. They are dreaded for good reason.

Smallpox radiates in ever-widening waves. Every silently infected person in the first swell of cases can infect as many as 10 or 15 more, who, unless quarantined, infect others at the same steep rate. If the smallpox virus were released as a weapon at one site, the disease could spread globally within six weeks. After the virus incubates for about 12 days, victims suddenly feel weak, feverish, and achy. Deep, dense lesions appear on the face, arms, and legs, leaving depigmented scars should the patient survive; and as with many viral diseases, there is no treatment once symptoms appear. One-third of victims die. (Though talk has abounded lately about suicide terrorists infected with smallpox, victims don't become contagious until the rash appears, by which time they would be far too ill to roam around.) A vaccine administered within a few days of exposure can prevent or significantly reduce subsequent symptoms. Unfortunately, existing vaccinations don't provide permanent immunity; after about 10 years, their effectiveness wanes. In the United States, where immunizations ended in 1972 (shortly before smallpox was officially declared eradicated from the face of the earth), most residents have lost their protection against this disease, as have most people around the globe.

Just as horrifying would be an anthrax epidemic, which is the greater fear at the time of this writing. Anthrax begins with fever, fatigue, and cough, and goes on to cause abruptly labored breathing and eventually shock leading to death. The infection spreads not person to person but by hardy spores. Inhalational anthrax, contracted when spores enter the lungs, had not been seen in 25 years in this country until early October, when one confirmed case and another possible one were reported among co-workers in a Florida office. …

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