Biological Terrors and Potentials; the Invisible Menace of Bioterrorism

Article excerpt


The most deadly and menacing attack using a weapon of mass destruction will not begin with a mushroom cloud overhead, horrific, yet instantly identifiable, as a nuclear strike. Nor will it begin with a panic in a subway below city streets, with people choking on a chemical that is unseen, yet unmistakably poisonous peril.

The most deadly and menacing attack will begin with nothing visible or detectable to indicate there has even been an attack. And for days, it will spread through a population unnoticed, undetected, undiagnosed, even when it first appears as an apparently isolated case of a rare illness. Then, there will be a second, maybe nearby, maybe not, a sickness that may or may not be recognized as similar; and then, there will be several others, still seemingly unconnected occurrences.

Crucial days will pass before authorities eventually detect that the nation has been attacked massively and expertly by biological weapons of mass destruction, wielded by terrorists who are now nowhere to be found. By then, the nation will be struggling to limit the spread of death. Struggling against time and nature to quarantine a germ that has had a perilous head-start., struggling to find and distribute the proper vaccine and medicines. Experts may discover that the nation has been attacked by a new, genetically engineered, weaponized germ. Perhaps, a weaponized germ for which there is no known cure.

This is, of course, is a worst-case scenario. For 100 years after H. G. Wells' 1899 classic "War of the Worlds," this was the stuff of frightening fiction. Ever since September 11, we have known that we are living in a world that is at war with itself. We must do all we can to assure that today's worst case scenario does not become tomorrow's news.

In researching a recent book and television documentary series ("Avoiding Armageddon: Our Future. Our Choice"), I was determined to present more than a handwringing investigation of the threats we face and spotlight bold solutions. There were indeed bold responses to nuclear terror safeguard America's national security by securing Russia's under-secured nuclear arsenals and materials before terrorists get them. So, too, with the vast chemical arsenals in Russia and elsewhere.

But for the threat of bioterrorism, solutions proved more limited than most experts like to say. International treaties do not outlaw the possession of pathogens, which are vital for research and vaccines; they outlaw possession of pathogens for the wrong purposes for making war, not medicine.

"With modern biotechnology, it's no longer necessary for there to be large stocks of these materials," according to Alan Zelicoff, a syndromic surveillance expert at the Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, N. …