Bioterror - The Threat, The Defense & The Future

The occurrence of a bioattack is difficult for many people in the United States to comprehend. What makes a bioattack unique from almost all other attacks is that it could convert normal daily objects into weapons. A simple handshake, sharing a pencil, a doorknob, or even a kiss on the cheek could transfer toxins. The incubation phase for anthrax is typically more than two weeks, so it is possible for someone to exhibit symptoms several weeks after exposure. The incubation period also can take months, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) website.

High-Consequence Biothreats Bioweapons are transmissible and can spread easily beyond the initial target. For example, anthrax can infect humans when they consume, touch, or inhale the spores. The inhaled form is the most hazardous and, among the 18 casesentified in the United States during the 20th century, the casualty rate was 75 percent, according to the CDC’s website. After the terrorist attack in fall 2001 in which anthrax spores were released through the U.S. mail system, five of the 11 people who were exposed died.

The increasing danger of bioterrorism has been strongly debated within the national security arena for more than a decade. In 2007, Congress established a commission of experts called the “Commission on the Prevention of WMD [Weapons of Mass Destruction] Proliferation and Terrorism,” which concluded in its December 2008 report that the chances were better than 50-50 that a WMD would be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by 2013.

Although a catastrophic attack has not occurred yet, extremists now have greater access to the information and the technology necessary to generate and spread bioweapons. It is important to note that, although it is relatively inexpensive to manufacture bioagents in large quantities, complex bioweapons are complicated to develop and manufacture. Realistically, any nation with a plausible, highly developed pharmaceutical and medical industry has the means of mass-producing bioweapons.

Security of agents in second-world countries is questionable, especially when tracking errors occur the United States. According to a 25 February 2013 report by the Government Accountability Office, 415 biolaboratories registered with the CDC and the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2004 to work with select bioagents. By 2010, that number had grown to 1,495, “Increasing the number of laboratories also increases the aggregate national risk” because of the likelihood of deliberate or accidental escape.

In early July 2014, scientists discovered decades-old vials of the smallpox virus in the storage room of a National Institute of Health laboratory located near Washington, D.C. At the time of discovery, it was uncertain if any of them were viable samples. However, the CDC has since announced that at least two of the six vials did in fact contain infectious agents. This recent lapse in security raises questions about how a nation can provide adequate defense – prevention, protection, detection, treatment, and decontamination – from a bioterrorism attack.

Prevent, Protect, Detect, Treat & Decontaminate Prevention can take numerous forms. First, fortifying the U.S. public health infrastructure would enhance the overall safety of citizens. No longer a distant fear, the threat of bioterrorism deliberately being used to cause chaos and death is at present a widespread alarm. “Especially troubling is the lack of priority given to the development of medical countermeasures – the vaccines and medicines that would be required to mitigate the consequences of an attack,” the January 2010 Commission Report Card found. Second, international disarmament and continued inspections could discourage production and dissemination of biowarfare agents by second- and third-world countries. Third, intelligence agencies couldentify possible threats and allow the government to take preventative action.

Significant progress against a bioterror hazard largely depends on understanding the threat, which requires different investments by the government and private sector partners. Without recognition of preventive actions, the nation’s preparedness programs will be insufficient and practitioners could potentially overlook vital opportunities to thwart such attacks.

Unfortunately, protection against bioterrorism is inadequate. Personal protective equipment based on local and regional needs, along with hazard vulnerability analysis, include protective suits, clothing, gas masks, and filters, which offer limited protection for only short periods of time. However, the perseverance of bioagents such as anthrax makes such protections mainly useful for only military personnel and first responders. Since anthrax can remain active and potentially lethal for at least 40 years, which is longer than most other agents, protection comes from the establishment of a good healthcare system. In addition, although vaccines frequently offer limited protection against genetically engineered bioagents designed to defeat vaccines, inoculation is a type of protection that would provide considerable protection against naturally occurring agents.

Detection of bioweapons can be difficult. U.S. forces suffered without reliable bioagent detection systems in the Gulf War era. Consequently, a number of detection systems have been developed and exist on the market today, including: SMART (Sensitive Membrane Antigen Rapid Test); JBPDS (Joint Biological Point Detection System); BIDS (Biological Integrated Detection System); and IBAD (Interim Biological Agent Detector). However, it still often takes a few hours to several days to detect contact with bioagents.

Detection is critical because treatment options after infection depend on whether the infectious agent has beenentified. If the agent has not been recognized, considerable doses of antibiotics could be given in hopes of finding the right one. As with protection, treatment of infected persons depends largely on the establishment and continuance of a reliable healthcare system.

Once dispersed, there is an urgent need for decontamination. Unlike chemical weapons, which dissolve over time, bioagents can potentially multiply; agents can mutate, reproduce, multiply, and spread over a large geographic area. Because of the length of time it may remain active and its high resistance to eradication, anthrax as well as other bioagents make decontamination of exposed persons a mammoth task. The procedure requires enormous dedication of both personnel and time. Even with suitable planning and training, the requirement demands a considerable contribution of resources. As previously mentioned, decontamination of those infected depends largely on the establishment and continuance of a good healthcare system.

Warnings About Future Attacks Representatives from both the Obama and Bush administrations have been troubled by the potential for a bioterrorism attack. Many have expressed looming concerns:

  • In December 2004, a report from the National Intelligence Council warned, “Our greatest concern is that terrorists might acquire biological agents.”
  • Michael Chertoff, the homeland security secretary from 2005 to 2009, told a reporter of The New York Times in 2011, “In terms of catastrophic attacks, bio was at the top of the list.”
  • In 2008, U.S. Director of National Intelligence John Michael (“Mike”) McConnell described a bioattack as his “personal greatest worry.”
  • On 12 February 2009, McConnell’s successor Dennis Blair warned the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that, “the terrorist use of biological agents represents a growing threat.”
  • In November 2009, the National Security Council projected that a bioattack could place “hundreds of thousands of people” at risk of death and cost more than $1 trillion.
  • And the December 2008 Commission report surmised, “To date, the U.S. government has invested most of its nonproliferation efforts and diplomatic capital in preventing nuclear terrorism. The commission believes that it should make the more likely threat – bioterrorism – a higher priority.”

Positioning the government to deal more effectively with catastrophic bioterrorism through prevention, protection, detection, treatment, and decontamination requires reforming and refining a federal system that can supply the adequate level of assistance to state and local communities. The current administration and Congress should move rapidly to modernize the existing system, diminish government red-tape, and ensure the capacity to respond to a cataclysmic bioterror threat, and incorporate and complement local, state, and federal operational capabilities before a crisis ensues.

An emergency event is not the time to exchange contact information. It also is imperative to keep in mind that there is no guarantee that a biolaboratory, no matter how secure or controlled, will withstand natural disasters such as floods and fires. Moreover, security breaches and incompetence are always possible. All of these issues must be considered to protect the nation and its communities from potential biothreats.

Richard Schoeberl

Richard Schoeberl, Ph.D., has over 30 years of law enforcement experience, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). He has served in a variety of positions throughout his career, ranging from a supervisory special agent at the FBI’s headquarters in Washington, DC, to unit chief of the International Terrorism Operations Section at the NCTC’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Before these organizations, he worked as a special agent investigating violent crime, human trafficking, international terrorism, and organized crime. Additionally, he has authorednumerousscholarly articles, serves as a peer mentor with the Police Executive Research Forum, is currently a professor of Criminology and Homeland Security at the University of Tennessee-Southern, and works with Hope for Justice – a global nonprofit combating human trafficking. 

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