Bioterrorism: How Real is the Threat?

Posted on Posted in Rise to Peace blog

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Much of the WMD threat today is focused on nuclear weapons and North Korea. However, bioterrorism is a threat worth analyzing. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention defines bioterrorism as biological agents (microbes or toxins) used as weapons to further personal or political agendas. Almost any pathogenic microorganism could be used in a bioterrorist attack, though anthrax and smallpox worry officials the most. The lethality [1] of an effective bioweapon is hard to conceive – one gram of anthrax can contain one trillion spores, which can result in a death toll of between 20 and 100 million people. Some say that the threat of bioterrorism is largely overblown [2], while others are adamant about not underestimating the risk [3]. Factors to consider when assessing the risk include the current global terror environment, the potential for terrorists to obtain pathogenic agents, the ability to weaponize said agents, and successful deployments thereof.

Many weapons of mass destruction require large facilities and highly suspicious components that call attention to nefarious actors. On the other hand, biological weapons can be assembled in a laboratory or home without raising suspicions and require technology that is dual-use [4] in nature. This heightens the threat of a bioweapon for two reasons. First, equipment like aerosolizers and recreational drones [5] can be purchased at easily accessible technology or home improvement stores and be used at home to create a bioweapon. Second, the dual-use dilemma also applies to research, as sanctioned and defense-related experimentation and studies can be conducted on biological weapons as a façade to gain insight into how to create them.

Though the means of purchasing the equipment necessary to create bioweapons, and the ability to create them in one’s home due to the small-scale nature of the agents are feasible, weaponizing the agent remains a significant challenge. The media often underestimate the obstacles involved in creating and effectively deploying a biological weapon, which allows some to misjudge their risk of being involved in an attack. For example, according to the late Dr. J.B. Tucker [6], a chemical and biological weapons expert, to develop an anthrax weapon, one would have to do the following:

“…obtain and cultivate a virulent strain of the bacterium, induce it to sporulate, process the spores into a liquid slurry or a dry powder, formulate the agent with stabilizing chemicals, fill It into a specialized sprayer that can disseminate the spores as a fine-particle aerosol, infecting those exposed through the lungs.”

It is evident that there are many hurdles to overcome in order to create an effective biological weapon. Many of these hurdles can be conquered if the person creating the weapon has real expertise, but there are also environmental elements [7] that can destabilize the agent and render it useless. These weapons are quite sensitive to heat, sunlight, wind, and humidity. Therefore, even if a weapon was created and the means for deployment were obtained, the unpredictability of Mother Nature still stands in the way.

The Biological Weapons Convention and Compliance

One issue that remains at the forefront of the biological weapons issue is that the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) does not have any enforcement mechanisms. The 1972 ­Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, which bans the “development, stockpiling, transfer, and use of biological weapons worldwide,” does not have any valid system to verify that the signatories to the BWC are complying with the established rules of the treaty. While treaties in the past have successfully mitigated disasters without a formal compliance mechanism, and the absence of any real biological weapon attack could be attributed to member states adhering to the convention, the current international political climate is not one in which trust and partnership are feasible options to ensure the safety of the global citizenry.

Reason abounds supporting the notion that a biological terrorist event is possible and likely – this includes the dual-use dilemma and lack of verification in the BWC protocols. One other piece of evidence that lends credibility to this assertion is that many terrorist groups are becoming increasingly apocalyptic and random in their killing. Rather than killing a targeted audience, groups such as ISIS [8] believe the enemy is any person who disagrees with their beliefs. Since biological weapons can kill more people than a nuclear war [9], the apocalyptic nature of some terrorist organizations has rightfully raised concerns about their potential interest in such a lethal and indiscriminate weapon.

While many hurdles exist that must be overcome in order to create a biological weapon, bioterrorism remains a credible threat. It would be a mistake to overestimate the threat and focus too much attention on bioterrorism to the detriment of other, potentially more probable hazards. However, though unlikely, a successful bioterror attack would be catastrophic to innocent human lives, as well as overwhelming to the healthcare industry, creating dramatic fear for the future.



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