March 31, 2005 • Volume 13 Number 14

Bioterrorism: Fear, History and Reality

Prof. Jeanne Guillemin (Sociology), one of America's foremost authorities on the history of biological weaponry, is a senior fellow in the Security Studies Program at MIT and author, most recently, of Biological Weapons: From the Invention of State-Sponsored Programs to Contemporary Bioterrorism, newly released by Columbia University Press. In a recent interview with Chronicle staff writer Mark Sullivan, Guillemin discussed the origins of, and misconceptions surrounding, bioterrorism.

How easy would it be for deadly gas or germs to be released in Times Square or at the Super Bowl, or for a suicidal zealot to infect himself with smallpox and pass the disease to morning commuters at Union Station? How could these scenarios be prevented?

It remains unclear what the threat of bioterrorism really is, since to date we have only imagined scenarios and no real mass event. The technical skills and materials to execute attacks with explosives, as history demonstrates, are much more common than those essential for a biological weapons attack and are obviously preferred by terrorists. Meanwhile, it has been possible to exploit public fear regarding anthrax, smallpox, and other diseases and to initiate federal programs in the name of biodefense that we can only hope will not divert the United States from basic research on solutions for more pressing infectious disease threats. New emerging diseases such as SARS and avian flu deserve concerted attention, not just in basic research but in the reinforcement of public health systems in general.

As for smallpox, the only known reserves are kept at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and at the Vector Institute in Novosibirsk in Russia. High security around those reserves or their complete destruction now that smallpox has been eradicated would be the best protection of world populations vulnerable to the disease.

In the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the media and think tanks broadcast explicit scenarios of Saddam Hussein's henchmen infected with smallpox invading the US and starting a massive epidemic. This scare scenario was a precursor to the 2003 smallpox vaccination program that started with the military and was to extend to first responders and then, by October 2003, to the entire US population. The risks associated with the vaccine (for example, for older people already at risk for heart disease or those with auto-immune problems) proved much worse than any foreign threat and the program failed. Federal stocks of vaccines or antibiotics are a good idea and we do maintain them. But exaggerations of the threat of bioterrorism have tended to divert biomedical resources and attention from actual, preventable diseases that kill or disable many thousands of people every day, such as HIV-AIDS, malaria, drug-resistant tuberculosis, cholera, and sleeping sickness, to say nothing of other health problems.

What do you see as the most likely form of attack to be launched by bioterrorists? What should be the first line of defense?

What bioterrorists? What bioterrorism? We should insert the word "potential" before either of these words and demand that our intelligence community provide realistic assessments of the threat, that is, of any group or state that has means and intent to so threaten the nation. We should remember that even the mailing of the 2001 anthrax letters was a crime rather than any kind of mass attack and likely perpetrated by an American scientist.

As for the first line of defense, history shows that government secrecy is the worst threat to national safety. The defining characteristics of the major programs (in France, Canada, the United Kingdom, United States, and the Soviet Union) was a lack of public knowledge about the development of the military means to spread disease among civilians who were and are the most vulnerable to an unusual outbreak. How can any of us protect ourselves against such an event, whether it occurs intentionally or by other means, without full knowledge of the options for prevention or protection through vaccines or antibiotics?

Having long ago abandoned biological warfare, the United States is not about to resume any offensive program. Still, a highly secret defensive program can pose risks to the public. As happened too often in past programs, dangerous innovations evolved on the basis of "looking-glass" reasoning - to acquire some dreamed-up advantage an enemy might have, in order to defend against it. The pioneering of more virulent pathogens, for example, and more efficient attack technology could through accident or sabotage seriously jeopardize public health and national security. It is of particular concern now, for instance, that nearly 100 percent of the scientists applying for the billions now available for biodefense research have had no experience with select agents. Most have little knowledge of the military history of these agents, which is one of the reasons I wrote my book.

Why haven't chemical or bio-weapons been used more than they have in the century since mustard gas was introduced in the trenches of World War I? What has kept these weapons in check?

After World War I, four important factors - national leadership, military resistance, public sentiment, and international treaties - restrained chemical weapons use and these influenced states to steer clear of biological weapons as well. First, some key national leaders were against chemical and biological weapons use. President Franklin Roosevelt had great antipathy for them. Adolph Hitler did as well and he refused to allow his military scientists even to develop biological weapons, a fact the Allies learned only late in 1944 after they had built up their own programs.

Second, from a military perspective, chemical weapons were unpredictable or seemed less honorable than guns and high explosives that could be targeted on the enemy. Third, after World War I, public sentiment turned strongly against chemical weapons and influenced national leaders to create the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which banned the use of chemical and biological weapons. In the Vietnam War era, the US use of riot control gas led to public outcry that then extended to biological weapons.

President Richard Nixon in 1969 shut down the US biological weapons program, an extraordinary gesture that paved the way to the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) and the belated US ratification of the Geneva Protocol. In 1993, with leadership from President George H. W. Bush, nearly all the world's nations signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, which like the BWC, bans all program-related activities along with the trade or possession of such weapons.

Up until now the world has been lucky that various restraints have worked. To take our protection from biological weapons out of the realm of chance is going to require leadership that is vigilant on multiple fronts. Much more needs to be done on legal restraints, for example, in involving the developing nations of the world that are poised to benefit from the biotechnology revolution in efforts that maximize transparency and so reduce the risks of military programs and of the dissemination of biological weapons to terrorists by states or in the world arms market.

In the last century we had two frightening examples of states acting in defiance of treaties against germ weapons. After 1925 Japan refused to ratify the Geneva Protocol and instead covertly instituted an enormous biological warfare program in occupied Manchuria, in pursuit of a secret advantage. In World War II, the Japanese Imperial Army then secretly used crude germ weapons (such as plague-infected fleas) against Chinese cities and towns. With similar secrecy, the USSR committed itself to the Biological Weapons Convention and then, in 1975, embarked on a huge offensive biological program.

What should be done to keep chemical or bio-weapons in check?

We live now in a much more transparent international environment, with relatively few states interested in remaining closed to the outside world or able to do so for long. The Biological Weapons Convention could and should have a permanent organization, as the Chemical Weapons Convention does in the Hague, to promote compliance through a general promotion of increased communication and on-site inspections of state and private pharmaceutical and military research facilities. The US has been most averse to this approach, arguing that commercial patents and military defense must be protected. Yet we are unwise to hold ourselves apart from the global risks of any pandemic, deliberate or not, which demands humanitarian objectives.

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