A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Are deadly germs the latest terrorist weapon?

December 8, 2000

Dear Cecil:

Recently I've been hearing a lot about the dangers of bioterrorism (germ warfare), in which some random group of fanatics gets the world's attention by, say, using a crop-duster plane to spray Washington, D.C., with anthrax and wipe out a couple hundred thousand people. The articles say we're totally unprepared, it's just a matter of time, etc. But so far all the terrorism I hear about involves the usual bombs and bullets. What's up, Cecil? Should I invest in face masks and tropical-disease inoculations, or will the Kevlar body armor be enough?

Cecil replies:

First the scary part.

A recent breakthrough has made it possible to create a "designer flu" using genetic engineering techniques. In an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (www.pnas.org/cgi/content/full/97/11/6108), Erich Hoffmann and associates describe an ingenious, but in principle not all that complicated, procedure that could be used to take a garden-variety flu virus and convert it into, say, the virulent strain that killed 20 million to 40 million people in the pandemic of 1918-'19. By enabling scientists to re-create strains of flu that currently seem threatening, the Hoffmann technique will speed up production of vaccines (which are made from live virus that is then inactivated). But you can see where it would be handy for terrorists too.

Fears of bioterrorism are based in part on the revelation that prior to its collapse the Soviet Union had created a vast scientific enterprise called Biopreparat to develop biological weapons. With 50,000 employees at 47 secret facilities, Biopreparat assembled an immense stockpile of deadly biological agents (historical info from Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health by Laurie Garrett, published this year). Following the Soviet collapse, the 50,000 workers drifted away. Where are they now? For that matter, where are the lethal bugs? Nobody's sure. What with possible rogue scientists, designer germs, and the usual homicidal zealots on the prowl, lots of people are quaking in their Hush Puppies.

Personally I'm not seeing it. I've yet to hear a convincing explanation of what the Soviets planned to do with their biological weapons. The U.S. dismantled its own germ-warfare program in the early 70s, partly because of protests but also because the stuff's value as a weapon was limited. Fact is, in modern times there have been few successful attacks using germ weapons, the principal and maybe only example being Japanese biowarfare assaults against China in the 30s, the details of which are murky. In contrast, chemical weapons such as poison gas were used to deadly (and well-documented) effect during World War I and in subsequent conflicts, e.g., Iraqi assaults on the Kurds.

Germs are unpredictable and a bitch to work with. For years there was no good way to "weaponize" them, i.e., deliver them to the target and distribute them once they got there. Ex-Biopreparat scientists claim to have overcome this problem, but since their techniques weren't tried in combat, who knows? Unlike explosives — a model of dependability by comparison — germ weapons may take days or weeks to act, kill everyone or no one depending on conditions, and in the worst case start an epidemic that wipes out both sides. Besides, while a couple mopes with a high school education can make a bomb powerful enough to blow up a government building, for a credible bioweapon you need a team of PhDs.

There've been only a few known bioterrorist assaults. In 1984 followers of Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh laced restaurant salad bars near their Oregon ranch with homegrown salmonella, hoping to disrupt local elections; 751 people came down with acute gastroenteritis but suffered no lasting effects. Members of Japan's Aum Shinrikyo cult tried attacks using anthrax and botulism toxin prior to their 1995 assault in the Tokyo subway system using the nerve gas sarin (5,500 affected, 100 hospitalized, 12 dead). Ironically, the worst incident may have been an accidental anthrax release from a Soviet bioweapons facility near Yekaterinburg in 1979. There were at least 66 fatalities; Garrett claims there may have been a thousand.

In light of this spotty record, it seems clear only a crazy person would try a bioterrorist attack. But that's just it, some say — terrorists are crazy! Come on. If you've got enough on the ball to carry out a biological attack you're smart enough to realize that there are easier ways to achieve the same result. Sure, as technology advances, bioterrorism may become so simple that someone will be tempted to try it. There's also a chance that some genetic engineering experiment involving viruses may go horribly awry. Recognizing these possibilities, the U.S. is implementing security measures such as increased vaccine stockpiles, special training for the military, improved public health communications and surveillance, etc. But if history is any guide, no large-scale civil defense measures will be taken until someone gets killed. How could it be otherwise? Given the myriad biological nightmares that could be visited on us, none of which necessarily will, we don't even know what to defend against.

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