Battling Biological Warfare

Nothing alerts the general populace quite like the word “pandemic, and with good reason.

(U.S. Defense Department graphic illustration by Jessica L. Tozer/Released)

(U.S. Defense Department graphic illustration by Jessica L. Tozer/Released)

It is a threat human beings have been fighting since the first sniffle.  From the Black Death, which killed an estimated 200 million, to the influenza outbreak of 1918, which infected 500 million people worldwide, to the anthrax scares in 2001, humans face the real and present danger of being killed by the great equalizer: disease.

Plagues are bad for people, bad for society, and bad for business.  That is, unless your business is terrorism.

Bio-warfare might take place on a microscopic level, but it is by no means a small problem.  This is something that affects more than troops.  The right disease in the wrong hands could put countless lives at risk.

The House Armed Services Committee recently discussed this exact threat during a hearing titled, “Biodefense: Resources and Priorities within the Department of Defense”.

“There are very real and very significant dangers in the world and the foremost target is America and Americans,” said Congressman Mac Thornberry, Armed Services Committee vice chairman.  “Biological threats must be at or near the top of that list.”

It’s not just Mother Nature’s fault, either.

Reports of Syria’s chemical weapons sparked outrage in recent news.  Rumors of North Korea’s biological warfare capabilities have surfaced in past and recent reports.  There was even a bygone Soviet program which engineered a pathogen within a pathogen, so that victims got sick then seemed to get better only to be hit with the second pathogen and quickly die.

In other words, there seems to be an endless number of biological threats from the crude to the sophisticated.  Bioterrorism is not going away anytime soon.

So, What Can We Do About It?

It turns out that the first step involves acknowledging the problem in the first place.

“Bio-warfare is obviously a very troubling prospect,” said Rep. Dr. Jim Langevin, U.S. House representative from Rhode Island’s 2nd Congressional District, “while less present in the news than nuclear or chemical warfare, it’s an extraordinarily lethal capability that poses a significant threat to the United States.”

There are many unknowns and problems unique to bio-warfare, Rep. Langevin adds, including, most obviously, the unlikelihood of an attack warning and the difficulty in crafting effective counter measures.

“Over the past two decades terrorists have wreaked havoc with bombs and bullets far more frequently than with disease,” said Dr. Amy Smithson, Monterey Institute of International Studies senior fellow.  “But no one should be complacent about the biological weapons threat.”

Proliferators can use synthetic biology to create – from scratch – notorious killers like the 1918 influenza virus and even the smallpox virus.  They can hijack other new life sciences technologies to manipulate and control human behavior, Dr. Smithson proposes.  The problem is that bio-warfare limits are largely (and unfortunately) unknown.

Dr. Bruce Bennett is the senior defense analyst for the RAND Corporation.  He testified that, even if biological agents are not currently being used, North Korea could still use them if they decide to go to war.

“Most observers believe that North Korea has pursued a serious biological weapons development program focused on a dozen diseases to include anthrax, cholera, smallpox and plague,” he testified.  “The latter two being contagious diseases.”

North Korean Special Forces are a likely means of delivering biological weapons, Dr. Bennett says.  The North has some 200,000 special forces, some of whom could deliver devastating biological attacks against South Korea, Japan and even the United States depending upon wind, atmospheric conditions, and population density.

A photomicrograph of Bacillus anthracis bacteria using Gram-stain technique.  (Photo provided by the CDC Prevention's Public Health Image Library)

A photomicrograph of Bacillus anthracis bacteria using Gram-stain technique. (Photo provided by the CDC Prevention’s Public Health Image Library)

These forces could infect perhaps 500 or 50,000 people per kilogram of anthrax used, he says.

Alternatively, with contagious diseases like smallpox, even if only 100,000 people were initially exposed thousands more could be infected as the disease spreads.

Biological Effects are Not Limited to Casualties and Fatalities.

As in the case of the anthrax letters, biological agents can deny the use of facilities potentially for years.  They can put overwhelming demands on the medical system.  They can force people to use protective measures that would particularly degrade military operations.  They can also cause psychological reactions.  The military faces an especially dangerous risk of contracting and spreading infection.

“I believe [bio-warfare] is a significant un-addressed threat to our armed forces and to our national security,” said retired Army Maj. Gen. Philip K. Russell, who also testified.  Specifically, he mentions a disease called tularemia.

Tularemia is one of the most infectious agents known and when delivered by aerosol in high doses causes a severe respiratory disease that can be fatal.  Tularemia is widely disseminated in nature and easily obtained.

“I believe that a significant national vulnerability exists that will persist unless action is taken to improve our countermeasures development efforts.”

Unfortunately, he bemoans, some of the best potential bio-weapons exist in nature and are readily available.  So locking up bacteria and viruses is not going to solve the problem.  This information is widely available on the Internet, he says.  The equipment is for sale on the Internet, making it easier for adversaries to make ready use of something that might not have been so readily available to them in the past.

Protecting the Military Protects the People.

Dr. Brett P. Giroir is the interim executive vice president at Texas A&M University for the Texas A&M Health Science Center.  He argues that DoD partnerships to develop and manufacture products to stockpile – and for special immunizations programs – would be a major benefit to service members and to the nation.

“Perhaps more importantly,” he says, “[the DoD could] be the cornerstone for an emergency response to genetically modified or chimeric organizations as well as other unexpected agents that we believe are a growing real threat to our national security and public health.”

He went on to say that such collaborations reduce DoD operational risks and expenditures, potentially by hundreds of millions of dollars.  Saving money and saving lives.

The Threat is Real.

 “People would be kidding themselves or grossly misinformed if they thought that terrorists – in the various groups and forms that they take – are uneducated,” Dr. Giroir warns.  “These are actually highly educated people in many ways.”

Gen. Russell says that the road to combating this threat starts with focusing on biological terrorism as a threat.  He says that includes a coordinated across-the-government effort to do it, and centralized leadership as well.

“Thankfully Mother Nature didn’t make it easy to make weapons grade plutonium or high enriched uranium,” Rep. Langevin says wrly.  “However, developing bioweapons and using them against our population is something that terrorists could do not just once but again and again and again.  That poses great risk.”

An investment in public health is an investment in national security.  For more information on this hearing, click here.

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Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed with Science.  She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for technology in the military.

Follow Armed with Science on Facebook and Twitter!

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