Bioterrorism (World of Microbiology and Immunology)
Bioterrorism is the use of a biological weapon against a civilian population. As with any form of terrorism, its purposes include the undermining of morale, creating chaos, or achieving political goals. Biological weapons use microorganisms and toxins to produce disease and death in humans, livestock, and crops.
Biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons can all be used to achieve similar destructive goals, but unlike chemical and nuclear technologies that are expensive to create, biological weapons are relatively inexpensive. They are easy to transport and resist detection by standard security systems. In general, chemical weapons act acutely, causing illness in minutes to hours at the scene of release. For example, the release of sarin gas by the religious sect Aum Shinrikyo in the Tokyo subway in 1995 killed 12 and hospitalized 5,000 people. In contrast, the damage from biological weapons may not become evident until weeks after an attack. If the pathogenic (disease-causing) agent is transmissible, a bioterrorist attack could eventually kill thousands over a much larger area than the initial area of attack.
Bioterrorism can also be enigmatic, destructive, and costly even when targeted at a relatively few number of individuals. Starting in September 2001, bioterrorist attacks with anthrax-causing bacteria distributed through the mail targeted only a few U.S. government leaders, media representatives, and seemingly random private citizens. As of June 2002, these attacks remain unsolved. Regardless, in addition to the tragic deaths of five people, the terrorist attacks cost the United States millions of dollars and caused widespread concern. These attacks also exemplified the fact that bioterrorism can strike at the political and economic infrastructure of a targeted country.
Although the deliberate production and stockpiling of biological weapons is prohibited by the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC)he United States stopped formal
Among the most serious of potential bioterrorist weapons are those that use smallpox (caused by the Variola virus), anthrax (caused by Bacillus anthracis), and plague (caused by Yersinia pestis). During naturally occurring epidemics throughout the ages, these organisms have killed significant portions of afflicted populations. With the advent of vaccines and antibiotics, few U.S. physicians now have the experience to readily recognize these diseases, any of which could cause catastrophic numbers of deaths.
Although the last case of smallpox was reported in Somalia in 1977, experts suspect that smallpox viruses may be in the biowarfare laboratories of many nations around the world. At present, only two facilitiesne in the United States and one in Russiare authorized to store the virus. As recently as 1992, United States intelligence agencies learned that Russia had the ability to launch missiles containing weapons-grade smallpox at major cities in the U.S. A number of terrorist organizationsncluding the radical Islamist Al Qaeda terrorist organizationctively seek the acquisition of state-sponsored research into weapons technology and pathogens.
There are many reasons behind the spread of biowarfare technology. Prominent among them are economic incentives; some governments may resort to selling bits of scientific information that can be pieced together by the buyer to create biological weapons. In addition, scientists in politically repressive or unstable countries may be forced to participate in research that eventually ends up in the hands of terrorists.
A biological weapon may ultimately prove more powerful than a conventional weapon because its effects can be farreaching and uncontrollable. In 1979, after an accident involving B. anthracis in the Soviet Union, doctors reported civilians dying of anthrax pneumonia (i.e., inhalation anthrax). Death from anthrax pneumonia is usually swift. The bacilli multiply rapidly and produce a toxin that causes breathing to stop. While antibiotics can combat this bacillus, supplies adequate to meet the treatment needs following an attack on a large urban population would need to be delivered and distributed within 24 to 48 hours of exposure. The National Pharmaceutical Stockpile Program (NPS) is designed to enable such a response to a bioterrorist attack.
Preparing a strategy to defend against these types of organisms, whether in a natural or genetically modified state, is difficult. Some of the strategies include the use of bacterial RNA based on structural templates to identify pathogens; increased abilities for rapid genetic identification of microorganisms; developing a database of virtual pathogenic molecules; and development of antibacterial molecules that attach to pathogens but do not harm humans or animals. Each of these is an attempt to increasend make more flexibledentification capabilities.
Researchers are also working to counter potential attacks using several innovative technological strategies. For example, promising research is being done with biorobots or microchip-mechanized insects, which have computerized artificial systems that mimic biological processes such as neural networks, can test responses to substances of biological or chemical origin. These insects can, in a single operation, process DNA, screen blood samples, scan for disease genes, and monitor genetic cell activity. The robotics program of the Defense Advanced Research Project (DARPA) works to rapidly identify bio-responses to pathogens, and to design effective and rapid treatment methods.
Biosensor technology is the driving force in the development of biochips for detection of biological and chemical contaminants. Bees, beetles, and other insects outfitted with sensors are used to collect real-time information about the presence of toxins or similar threats. Using fiber optics or electrochemical devices, biosensors have detected microorganisms in chemicals and foods, and they offer the promise of rapid identification of biogenic agents following a bioterrorist attack. The early accurate identification of biogenic agents is critical to implementing effective response and treatment protocols.
To combat biological agents, bioindustries are developing a wide range of antibiotics and vaccines. In addition, advances in bioinformatics (i.e., the computerization of information acquired during, for example, genetic screening) also increases flexibility in the development of effective counters to biogenic weapons.
In addition to detecting and neutralizing attempts to weaponize biogenic agents (i.e., attempts to develop bombs or other instruments that could effectively disburse a bacterium or virus), the major problem in developing effective counter strategies to bioterrorist attacks involves the breadth of organisms used in biological warfare. For example, researchers are analyzing many pathogens in an effort to identify common genetic and cellular components. One strategy is to look for common areas or vulnerabilities in specific sites of DNA, RNA, or proteins. Regardless of whether the pathogens evolve naturally or are engineered, the identification of common traits will assist in developing counter measures (i.e., specific vaccines or antibiotics).
See also Anthrax, terrorist use of as a biological weapon; Biological warfare; Contamination, bacterial and viral; Genetic identification of microorganisms; Public health, current issues
Bioterrorism (World of Forensic Science)
Bioterrorism is the use of a biological weapon against a civilian or military population by a government, organization, or individual. As with any form of terrorism, its purposes include the undermining of morale, creating chaos, or achieving political goals. Biological weapons use microorganisms and toxins to produce disease and death in humans, livestock, and crops.
Bioterrorism is viewed as a serious threat to national security and a range of experts, including forensic investigation teams, would be called on to deal with an incident involving biological weapons. For example, disaster scenarios created by United States government agencies predict that the release of a few hundred pounds of the spores of Bacillus anthracis (the bacterium that cause the disease called anthrax) upwind of Washington, D.C., could sicken or kill hundreds of thousands to millions of people within 24 hours. Forensic scientists would likely respond by identifying the bacterium, tracing its source, and gathering and analyzing other evidence from the biocrime scene and the victims.
Bioterrorism can also be used as a weapon to damage or destroy the economy of the target nation. A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates the cost of dealing with a large-scale anthrax incident is at least $26 billion per 100,000 people. Only a few such incidents would cripple the economy of any nation. Indeed, the few anthrax incidents that occurred following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks cost the United States government hundreds of millions of dollars in treatment, investigation, and other response measures.
Biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons can all be used to achieve similar destructive goals (i.e., massive loss of life). Relative to chemical and nuclear weapons, biological weapons are inexpensive to make. A sophisticated biological production facility can be set up in a warehouse or even a small house. Biological weapons are relatively easy to transport and can resist detection by standard security systems.
In general, chemical weapons act immediately, causing illness in minutes. For example, the release of sarin gas in the Tokyo subway in 1995 by the religious sect Aum Shinrikyo almost immediately killed 12 and hospitalized 5,000 people. In contrast, the illness and death from biological weapons can occur more slowly, with evidence of exposure and illness appearing over time. Thus, a bioterrorist attack may at first be indistinguishable from a natural outbreak of an infectious disease. By the time the deliberate nature of the attack is realized, the health care system may be unable to cope with the large number of victims.
The deliberate production and stockpiling of biological weapons is prohibited by the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention. The United States ceased offensive production of biological weapons in 1969, on orders from President Richard Nixon. The U.S. stockpiles were destroyed in 1971972. This measure has not stopped bioterrorists from acquiring the materials and expertise needed to produce biological weapons.
Genetic engineering can produce a wide variety of bioweapons including bacteria or viruses that produce toxins. More conventional laboratory technologies can also produce bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics.
Examples of the bioterrorist weapons most likely to be used include smallpox (caused by the variola virus), anthrax (caused by Bacillus anthracis), and plague (caused by Yersinia pestis).
The last recorded case of smallpox was in Somalia in 1977. Today, only two facilitiesne in the United States and one in Russiare authorized to store the virus. In spite of international prohibitions, security experts suspect that smallpox viruses may be under development as biological weapons in other laboratories of many nations. As recently as 1992, Russia had the ability to launch missiles containing weapons-grade smallpox. A number of terrorist organizations, including Al Qaeda, have explored the use of biological weapons.
Bioterrorism may ultimately prove to be more destructive than conventional warfare because of the mobility of the weapons and their ability to spread infection through an entire population. An epidemic can spread a disease far from the point of origin of the illness.
Preparing a strategy to defend against biological warfare is challenging. Traditional identification of microorganisms such as bacteria and viruses relies on assays that detect growth of the microbes. Newer technologies detect microbes based on sequences of genetic material. The genetic technologies can detect microbes in minutes. However, these technologies are not available to any but the most sophisticated field investigative units.
Researchers are also working to counter bioterrorist attacks using several other technological strategies. For example, robots equipped with sensors or microchip-mechanized insects (with computerized circuitry that can mimic biological processes such as neural networks) are being refined. Bees, beetles, and other insects outfitted with sensors are used to collect real-time information about the presence of toxins or similar threats. These technologies could be used to examine a suspected biological weapon and spare exposing investigators to potential hazards. The robotics program of the Defense Advanced Research Project (DARPA) works to rapidly identify bio-responses to pathogens, and to effectively and rapidly treat them.
Research is also underway to find genetic similarities between the microbes that could be used by bioterrorists. A vaccine made to act on a protein that is common to several bacteria could potentially offer protection to the exposure any bacterium in the group, for example.
SEE ALSO Anthrax, investigation of the 2001 murders; Biological warfare, advanced diagnostics; Biological weapons, genetic identification; Chemical Biological Incident Response Force, United States; Pathogen transmission; Pathogens; Sarin gas; September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks (forensic investigations of); Smallpox; Vaccines.