The Anthrax Terror: DOD's Number-One Biological Threat

Article excerpt

Editorial Abstract: The chance that our armed forces will encounter biological weapons has increased dramatically since the dissolution of the USSR. Drs. Johnson-Winegar and Davis give us an in-depth tutorial on anthrax, the predominant bioweapon threat, and they provide clear rationale for our needing a viable vaccination defense.

TODAY THE US military faces a variety of threats around the world, ranging from nuclear ballistic miss siles to information warfare. The ability to conduct biological warfare (BW)-- to employ biological agents like anthrax as weapons-lies within our adversaries' threat arsenals. This increasingly discussed threat is not as readily appreciated and understood as kinetic-energy threats but presents no less and perhaps an even more daunting challenge to the Department of Defense (DOD) and the nation. The sobering reality is that this threat impacts our national security, and its effects could dramatically change our society.

The relative ease with which biological weapons can be obtained, along with other changes in the world, sets the stage for a different type of warfare in the twenty-first century. BW may reshape the way nations fight wars. If used on a massive scale against the civilian populace, BW could redraw the patterns of our society as people become increasingly concerned about being victims of this silent and deadly mode of warfare. Scientists predict the next several decades will pose challenges as current BW technology evolves into futurist biological weapons such as binary BW agents, stealth viruses, and malicious designer genes. In fact, biological warfare capabilities are probably where nuclear weapons were in the 1940s.1

Underscoring how seriously the US military views biological weapons in general and anthrax in particular, the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1996 declared anthrax the number-one biological-weapon threat to our military forces.2 Why is DOD so concerned about biological warfare and particularly anthrax? What can be done to mitigate this threat? Knowing that all vaccines have potential risks, is DOD justified in having a goal of vaccinating one hundred percent of the military against anthrax, or should alternative solutions be adopted?

Why the Concern about Biological Warfare?

Millions of defense dollars are currently funding projects to protect our military forces and nation against potential BW attacks. During the last 75 years, several international treaties and arms control agreements have been put into place, yet the number of nations with BW programs has not seemed to wane.3 Based on the incidence of past use of BW in the twentieth century, globalization, technology transfers, and an increasing interest in BW, our military forces should expect and be prepared to encounter and cope with BW use during the twenty-first century. The world is changing, and these changes are escalating the BW risk. Today, rogue states and some terrorist groups are able to overcome technological barriers more easily due to the increased flow of information and access to technologies that were heretofore unavailable. Along with nuclear and chemical arms, biological weapons are part of an unholy trinity of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Although chemical warfare (CW) and BW programs require different equipment and expertise, they do have several common features. Both are considered inexpensive weapons that can inflict massive casualties, and both are usually most effective when inhaled. If given advance warning, military personnel can don protective masks and suits that will protect them from both chemical and biological weapons. Neither type of threat destroys property like conventional or nuclear weapons. As a result of these and other factors, countries that have CW programs usually have BW programs. Similarly, countries with BW programs are likely to have CW programs. Since chemicals have been used more widely as weapons, the past use of BW has often been overlooked. …