the anthrax scare — terror unlimited

 sickle_s.gif (30476 bytes) People’s Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of
India (Marxist)


No. 45

November 11,2001


Amit Sen Gupta

THE widespread
global panic associated with the “anthrax scare” has ensured that bio-terrorism
has leapfrogged out of the pages of science fiction thrillers into the everyday lives of
common people. The use of biological weapons by terrorists groups, or even by states
harbouring secret caches of biological weapons, has long been seen to be a distinct


weapons are particularly “convenient” as agents that can be used to spread
terror. Weight by weight, they are the most lethal products of human enterprise. For
example, the quantity of botulinum toxin (produced by the bacteria clostridium
) in the dot of an ‘i’ is enough to kill10 people. In 1970, a World
Health Organisation (WHO) expert committee estimated that casualties following the
theoretical aircraft release of 50 kg of anthrax over a developed urban population of five
million, would be 250,000, a 100,000 of whom would be expected to die without treatment. A
1993 report by the US Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, estimated that
between 130,000 and 3 million deaths could follow the aerosolised release of 100 kg of
anthrax spores upwind of the Washington, DC. area— lethality matching, or exceeding,
that of a hydrogen bomb.

Moreover, most
bio-weapons-grade microbes are relatively easy and inexpensive to grow. Large quantities
of biological weapons can, in most cases, be produced in a short period (a few days to a
few weeks), at small facilities scattered over a large area. The relative ease of
manufacture of biological weapons has, in fact, led to their being termed as the
“poor man’s nuclear weapons”!

developments in genomics research have further enhanced the possibility of using
biological material as weapons of mass destruction. It might now be possible to enhance
the antibiotic resistance of biological agents, modify their antigenic properties or
transfer pathogenic properties between them.

“tailoring” of classical biological warfare agents could make them harder to
detect, diagnose and treat. Further “advances” could conceivably allow targeting
bio-weapons against particular groups -ethnic groups with specific characteristics. It may
also be possible to develop “stealth” viruses that could be introduced covertly
into the genomes of a given population, then triggered later by a signal.


Let us now turn
to the specific case of the use of anthrax as a biological weapon. For centuries anthrax
has caused disease in animals and, uncommonly, serious illness in humans throughout the
world. Naturally occurring anthrax is a disease acquired following contact with
anthrax-infected animals or anthrax-contaminated animal products. The disease most
commonly occurs in herbivores (cattle, sheep, goats, etc.), which are infected by
ingesting spores from the soil. Animal vaccination programs have drastically reduced the
animal mortality from the disease. However, anthrax spores continue to be documented in
soil samples from throughout the world.

The anthrax
bacteria (bacillus anthracis) form spores when conditions are adverse for its
survival. These spores have been known to survive for months in the soil, where they are
deposited by infected animals through their excreta. Because of this it is recommended
that infected animals should either be cremated or buried deep in the soil.

The spores start
multiplying once they gain access to living tissue – animals or humans. They cause
swelling of glands, decay and haemorrhage (bleeding) in affected parts, and release a
toxic substance that can cause failure of the circulatory system (sudden fall in blood


In humans, three
types of anthrax infection occur: inhalational (by inhaling anthrax spores), cutaneous
(through skin contact with anthrax spores provided the skin is already broken), and gastrointestinal
(through eating animals infected with anthrax).

occurring inhalational anthrax is now a rare cause of human disease. Historically,
wool sorters at industrial mills were at highest risk.

anthrax is the most common naturally occurring form, with an estimated 2000 cases
reported annually from across the globe.

anthrax follows ingestion of insufficiently cooked contaminated meat. While
gastrointestinal anthrax is uncommonly reported, gastrointestinal outbreaks have been
reported in Africa and Asia.

anthrax is expected to account for most morbidity, and essentially all mortality,
following the use of anthrax as an aerosolised biological weapon. Typically inhalational
anthrax manifests itself within 1-3 days after inhalation of anthrax spores. The initial
symptoms are very similar to the common “flu” — fever, swelling of glands and
muscle pain. Usually, after 3-5 days, when the infected person appears to be recovering,
there is a sudden relapse of symptoms in a more virulent form. Over 80 per cent of those
infected die if not treated.

Treatment with
antibiotics can cure anthrax, but only if initiated within a few days of the original
infection. This is a problem, because in the initial period anthrax may not be suspected
unless one is specifically looking for it. Once the disease reaches an advanced stage,
treatment with antibiotics is usually useless.

The reason why
anthrax is seen as a likely candidate for weaponisation is twofold. One, initial
symptoms of the disease make it indistinguishable from commonly occurring illnesses like
influenza and other viral fevers. Two, unlike other candidates like smallpox,
anthrax is still present in the wild across the globe. Hence it is easier to access the
anthrax bacteria and then grow them in laboratories.

However, to be
effective as a weapon, anthrax spores would have to be “milled”, that is
converted into very small particles – so that they can reach the respiratory system of
humans through inhalation. And to affect a large population, they would have to be sprayed
in the form of an aerosol.


We tend to
forget that biological weapons were considered a legitimate area of research till as late
as thirty years back. Practically all the research in development of biological
agents as weapons of mass destruction were carried out in the US, Russia, England, Japan,
France and Germany.
In fact in 1944 Winston Churchill approved an order of 500,000
4-pound anthrax bombs, to be built in the United States—an order that was aborted by
the end of the War.

At the time the
U.S. biological weapons programme was terminated by President Nixon in 1969, five
biological agents for anthrax, tularemia, brucellosis, Q fever and Venezuelan
equine encephalitis virus (VEE),
had been standardised and weaponised.

The Biological
and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) came into effect in 1975. The Convention (with 143
signatories that includes Iraq but, significantly, not Israel) states that members shall
not “develop, produce, stockpile or otherwise acquire or retain microbial or other
biological agents, or toxins whatever their origin or method of production, of types or in
quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful

the BTWC has remained, essentially, a “gentlemen’s agreement”. It has
virtually no teeth in actually verifying that members comply with the above stipulation.
Such physical verification is crucial, because it is relatively simple to camouflage
biological weapons research— as research on vaccines, drug development, etc.
Ironically, just six weeks before the attacks on the World Trade Centre, the US was
instrumental in vetoing a proposal that would have allowed random checks of all facilities
in member countries that have the potential for use in biological weapons research. It is
doubly ironical that the US should be intransigent after having successfully argued for a
mandatory surveillance of all facilities in Iraq. The US jettisoned the emerging
consensus on the plea that freedom to inspect research facilities would harm the
commercial interests of US pharmaceutical and biotechnology corporations!


Today, very like
the Bin-Laden variety of terrorism, bio-terrorism has come back to haunt its original
sponsors. Countries such as Iraq, now perceived as “notorious” purveyors of
biological weapons, received the technologies for development of biological weapons from
countries that originally developed them. The same holds true for any terrorist groups
that are today in possession of biological weapons.

It is widely
acknowledged that the US provided Iraq with the technological know-how for producing
anthrax in the eighties, because it hoped that Iraq (then an US ally) would use it against

apprehensions that the original developers of biological weapons never destroyed their
entire stockpile have not been laid to rest. It is possible to speculate that the US does
not wish to allow inspection of all facilities that can produce biological weapons because
it continues to maintain a stockpile of such weapons, or at least the capability to
produce them. Clearly any global action against bio-terrorism needs to start at the origin
of these evil weapons of destruction.

The US may use
the global “anthrax scare” to target new “enemies”. Iraq has been
widely talked about in this context. In fact the possibility of anthrax being used as a
weapon by Iraq was widely discussed during the Gulf War in 1991 – subsequent to which all
US soldiers are routinely vaccinated against anthrax. It defies logic, however, as to why
Iraq should resort to bio-terrorism in a situation where it is desperate to shake off
economic sanctions against it that were imposed at the behest of the US.

More likely
candidates would be local US-based terrorist groups or even agencies that are interested
in maintaining the “threat perception” in the US from perceived
“enemies”. This in turn would serve to legitimise more sustained and destructive
military actions by the US and its allies. We are yet to receive very concrete evidence
regarding the source of the present spate of anthrax infections. Curiously, the US Postal
Department has categorically stated that letters contaminated by spores cannot spread
anthrax infection. How then did the infection spread among the 30 odd reported cases?
Moreover the letter route is an inefficient way of spreading the disease. If it were to be
used as an effective weapon it would logically have been sprayed over a densely populated
area in the form of an aerosol.

We need answers
to these questions before any country or group can be held responsible.

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