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 possibility.
CONVENIENT & LETHAL
Biological 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 botulinum) 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”!
Recent 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.
Such “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.
WHAT IS ANTHRAX?
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 pressure).
THREE TYPES OF INFECTION
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).
Naturally occurring inhalational anthrax is now a rare cause of human disease. Historically, wool sorters at industrial mills were at highest risk.
Cutaneous anthrax is the most common naturally occurring form, with an estimated 2000 cases reported annually from across the globe.
Gastrointestinal anthrax follows ingestion of insufficiently cooked contaminated meat. While gastrointestinal anthrax is uncommonly reported, gastrointestinal outbreaks have been reported in Africa and Asia.
Inhalational 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 purposes.”
Unfortunately 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!
START AT THE SOURCE
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 Iran!
Further, 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.