Biological Warfare: The Threat of the Millennium

By Ensign Kerry Ann George, U.S. Naval Reserve

That the United States and most European countries are not fully prepared to defend against such a threat becomes clearer each day. In 1994, a United Nations team discovered Iraqi developments in the production of toxic germs. In 1995, Iraq admitted to preparing for biological warfare. One result of this increasing biowarfare threat is the realization that the United States needs improved response systems to biological agents. In 1996, under the Department of Defense Domestic Preparedness Program, the U.S. Army's Chemical and Biological Defense Command began preparing cities for possible "terrorist onslaught." Both Baltimore and New York were slated in 1998 for biological agent attack simulations.

Biological warfare encompasses an enormous arsenal of pathogens, including viruses bacteria, and plagues. As airborne weapons, they are "kilogramme for kilogramme . . . more lethal than nerve gas over far greater distance." According to Jane's Biological-Chemical Defense Guidebook , "given the correct delivery conditions, an attack with anthrax could produce casualty levels approaching those of a nuclear attack." While anthrax is one of the most common biological warfare agents, several others also have made names for themselves, especially among terrorist groups. Botulinum, Marburg Fever, Ebola, and genetically enhanced variants of smallpox are only a few.

Anthrax is a bacteria responsible for acute infections of the skin, lungs, or gastrointestinal tract. Initial symptoms are similar to the flu but become more severe after about two days, and within 24 hours of this acute onset, death occurs in more than 90% of untreated cases. Anthrax is a favorite among weapons of mass destruction because it can survive exposure for several days and withstand heat up to 159 Celsius. It can contaminate soil and water for decades.

Botulinum toxin is one of the most deadly compounds if entered orally into the body, but its toxicity decreases if it is inhaled. Each of the six existing strands cause paralysis by blocking motor nerve communications. It is an attractive biowarfare agent because of its high rate of lethality (more than 60%), its high resistance to treatments, and the fast onset of severe symptoms.

Marburg Fever and Ebola both are conditions caused by viruses. With an incubation period of 16 to 24 days, both produce sudden onsets of fever, muscle pain, and headaches. The death rate for Ebola is 50-90%, and about 25% for Marburg. These are used as biological weapons because information on them is limited, making them hard to defend against. In addition, no vaccine is available for Marburg Fever.

The threat of biological agents is great, but several countermeasures have been developed, including vaccinations, early detection mechanisms for the field, response teams, and increased inspection teams/authority in an international body. To date, the Department of Defense has upgraded one anthrax vaccination that originally was produced in the 1960s, and it already has ordered all of its active-duty military members to receive this series of immunization shots. "An effective vaccination is one of the best defenses you can employ," notes Bill Cawood of the U.S. General Accounting Office, National Security and International Affairs Division, "but you can never be sure you have the right vaccine or that it will protect against altered agents or if those closest to the agent will have sufficient protection."

Against agents such as smallpox, mutations are an ever-growing concern. When agents are produced synthetically, the possibility of altering their genetic makeup becomes greater—and vaccines become less effective. In addition, at present the United States does not have the capability to produce vaccines fast enough or in large enough quantities to react to an imminent biological attack. Passive immunization, which supplies the body with premade antibodies against specific biological agents, is an alternative, but although protection begins immediately, it lasts only up to six months, and can last as little as three weeks.

Early detection in the field would aid efforts against biological warfare because part of the current problem is in determining that an attack actually has occurred. Oftentimes, bacteria or airborne spores cannot be seen or felt until damage is done. To aid in the detection phase, researchers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory have developed the Chemical-Biological Mass Spectrometer. It is the size of a desktop computer and weighs less than 2 kilograms. With a prototype made and set to go into production by 2001, the mass spectrometer operates by collecting air samples, heating them to break down a substance to its molecular form, and then comparing its mass-to-charge ratios of the molecules against "an onboard library of known toxic agents." Another development is the sniffer plane. Researchers at the National Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., have produced a radio-controlled aircraft capable of sampling air to test for spores of various particular biological weapon bacteria.

Rapid Assessment and Initial Detection (RAID) teams are another approach that the Department of Defense is considering in its war on biological weapons. Planned to be phased in over the next four years, these teams will be responsible for "first-response decontamination, treatment, and evacuation of those exposed, plus determination of what additional resources are needed in response" to the attack. Arming such response teams with proper protective gear actually capable of killing bacteria is imperative. Without proper equipment, these teams will be useless, because they themselves would be subject to the attack. Simulations have been carried out in major U.S. cities to improve the efficiency of response teams and to uncover areas of weakness. The main problem is that even though the military is somewhat capable of withstanding a mild attack, the United States is not, by any means, capable of protecting the civilian population in terms of protective clothing, vaccinations, and shelter defenses.

A final consideration in the fight against biological weapons is the action that other countries must take in conjunction with the United States. With biological agents becoming more accessible to Third World powers and terrorist groups, the United States sees the importance of inspecting other countries' chemical factories, but it will not allow its own companies to be inspected. Jack Melling, former head of Britain's Centre for Applied Microbiology and Research, states that "the current crisis in Iraq `shows how badly we need a verification regime for biological weapons."' In 1991, the United Nations established UNSCOM, a body empowered to inspect factories for which there was evidence of the manufacture of biowarfare agents. All signatories of the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention agree on the need for such inspections, but they cannot agree on a way to apply or enforce them. The United States is a strong factor in the indecision, as it is one of the few countries vehemently resisting inspections. Developing a means to counter a biological attack is imperative, but an even more important aspect of a defense system is deterrence—and deterrence relies heavily on the enforceability of the convention.

A real threat exists, both within and outside the United States, and this biological warfare threat must not be taken lightly. Current stockpiles of vaccines are too low, and in the face of an attack, national pharmaceutical production may be inadequate. Detectors that can be used in the field are not in production yet. Equally upsetting, most civilian doctors have no experience dealing with these deadly toxins, plagues, and bacteria. Without medical professionals who can diagnose outbreaks quickly, the fight against biological warfare cannot be complete. Communication with other parts of the world is vital to understanding and conquering these threats. Computer scientists are working hand in hand with epidemiologists to set up easily accessible internet programs. This would enable far greater coverage and link even remote parts of the world. In epidemiology, clues sometimes seem unrelated, yet those clues may be the keys linking important aspects of the mystery.

Several steps can be taken to meet the rising threat of biological warfare. First, the 140 countries that have signed the 1972 Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention need to agree to terms for inspecting factories and pharmaceutical laboratories. Without an established inspection routine, the convention cannot be enforced, and active preparations for biological warfare such as those found in Iraq will continue unchecked. The key to success is to apply this system uniformly to all countries, including the United States. Right now, the United States fears confidentiality breaches with respect to innovative production techniques, but there are ways to avoid this risk. As U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright pointed out, "The biological weapons convention needs enforcement teeth if we are to have confidence it is being respected around the world."

In addition, in the event that deterrence fails, the United States needs to have a way to defend against attack. Field detection devices need to be procured and implemented. Soldiers need to be inoculated and provided with protective clothing and face masks. Antibiotics need to be readily available, and medical teams need to be trained specifically in the symptoms and effects of biological agents. Only in this way can the United States and its allies win the war against biological agents.

Ensign George , a 1999 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, will be a student at the Uniform Services University of the Health Sciences medical school beginning in August.


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