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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Bioterrorism Threat

Air Date: Week of

The terrorist attacks on New York and Washington this week have many Americans feeling very vulnerable. Terrorism experts say it could have been even worse had biological weapons also been used. Host Steve Curwood talks with reporter Bob Carty about the threat of bioterrorism.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The terrorism in New York and Washington on September 11 has many Americans feeling vulnerable. The attacks revealed how a small group of terrorists -- well financed and well organized-- can reek devastation and death on a massive scale.

Terrorism experts say it could have been even worse had biological weapons been used. Biological weapons are killer microbes such as anthrax and smallpox. In fact, shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Federal officials went into action. Jim Hughes is the Director for the National Center for Infectious Disease.

HUGHES: We did notify state and local health departments throughout the country that they should heighten vigilance and fully utilize the resources that have been put in place over the past two and a half years to monitor for any unusual clusters of illness.

CURWOOD: So far, no unusual outbreaks have been reported. But, still, the threat of bio-terrorism is so great the Federal government is currently spending an estimated two billion dollars a year in developing defenses against them. I'm joined now by Bob Carty, the correspondent with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation who's reported extensively on this topic. Welcome, Bob.

CARTY: Hi, Steve.

CURWOOD: Biological weapons are called weapons of mass destruction. Why?

CARTY: Well, essentially because they are so lethal. We're talking here about viruses, bacteria, fungi, living things. For example, ten grams of anthrax, a biological weapon, could kill the same number of people as one ton of Sarin gas, a chemical weapon.

Biological weapons could even be comparable to nuclear weapons. There is one estimate, for example, that 200 pounds of anthrax released on a large major city could kill between one and three million people.

CURWOOD: Bob, who has these weapons?

CARTY: Well, there's a standard list that the experts use of about 10 to 18 countries who may have biological weapons or biological weapons capacity, and that list usually runs Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, China, North Korea, Russia, Israel, Taiwan, and then, possibly, Sudan, India, Pakistan, and Kazakhstan. There may be state-sponsored terrorist groups or international terrorist groups, and there's also some concern that there may be some capacity amongst certain cults, doomsday cults or white supremacist groups.

CURWOOD: How easy would it be to get a biological weapon into the United States?

CARTY: Oh, very easy. In fact, I've heard this one expert on biological weapons give a talk where he pulls out a small plastic vile from his breast pocket and explains that he has just come through an airport security check without any detection. They're very, very hard to detect, and that, of course, is one of the, so-called, military advantages of biological weapons.

CURWOOD: How vulnerable are we to a biological weapons attack?

CARTY: Everyone agrees that there is a threat out there. The question is, how great? Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, has said he fears biological weapons more than chemical or nuclear weapons, for that matter, and others share that view. And one of them is Michael Osterholm. I have some tape from him. He's an expert in infectious diseases, the former state epidemiologist in Minnesota and the author of a book called "Living Terrors: What America Needs to Know to Survive the Coming Bio-terrorist Catastrophe." Here is Michael Osterholm.

OSTERHOLM: We're talking about a situation where even one single release could be so catastrophic that it could really begin to define our history as pre and post that release. All it's going to take is one event. And as the Irish Republican Army has often said, "You have to be lucky all of the time. We have to be lucky just once."

I am convinced that it's not a matter of if. It's a matter of when, where and how bad it will be.

CURWOOD: Not if, but when? Bob, this begs a question why biological weapons have not been used so far?

CARTY: Well, actually, recall that they were used once in World War II by the Japanese and China, and also used once in a small incident in Japan that perhaps we can talk about. But I think there are several reasons why they have not been used. There are inherent problems with these weapons. After all, if you release them, you can be killed yourself. You can kill your own troops. You can release diseases that cross borders, don't stay in one place. They become pandemics, even. And these materials, like anthrax or botulism or Ebola, or smallpox, are hard to produce. They're hard to weaponize in the right shape and size that they can stay alive and infect people over a given time period.

Above all, though, I think they're so repugnant. People who would use these would be subject to massive retaliation and wouldn't achieve anything politically. I think for all those reasons, in 1972 the world supported the initiative by President Nixon to initiate a Biological Weapons Treaty to ban this stuff. And people hoped that that would work until, of course, we discovered that the Soviet Union had a secret program.

CURWOOD: What was the scope of that Soviet program, and what's the implications of it?

CARTY: We learned about it in about 1992 from a defector by the name of Ken Alibek. He was the former Deputy Chief of Biopreparat, the former Soviet Union's military biological weapons program. He now lives outside of Washington, D.C. And here's how he now describes his former biological weapons program in the former Soviet Union.

ALIBEK: You know, this program was huge, I would say, about sixty, maybe seventy thousand people involved. Biological weapons would be produced not by grams or kilograms, by tons. For example, one thousand tons of plague or something like this. Five hundred tons -- metric tons-- a year of dry anthrax. In the 80's the Soviet Union started to develop some genetically altered viruses, and first target, first virus was the smallpox virus.

CURWOOD: Now, why would the Soviets concentrate on smallpox as a biological weapon?

CARTY: Well, first of all, because it's very virulent. It kills about 30% of the people who are infected. And for every person infected, about 20 more people will get infected. So, it produces successive waves of people with smallpox, people dying, health workers dying, public health systems possibly collapsing. Now, this disease also has a tremendous sad historic irony about it, Steve. It was eradicated from the face of the earth. And it was eradicated by a world health program under the direction of an American, Dr. D.A. Henderson. The problem was, some of the virus was still put in repositories in the United States and in the Soviet Union. And with the collapse of the Soviet Union, you have all kinds of scientists who disappeared who worked on these programs. And Dr. D.A. Henderson is very worried, what happened to those scientists? Here's D.A. Henderson.

HENDERSON: They were not being paid very well, and probably a third to half of the scientists have left the laboratories. We know that Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Libya, all have been actively recruiting Russian scientists. The question is, what has gone with them?

CURWOOD: So, Bob, that means, of course, that one of the places that terrorists could get material to put together a bio-terrorist attack would be from these former Soviet scientists?

CARTY: Exactly. Nation states, some of the countries we mentioned earlier, might try to recruit them and set up facilities for them. It might be required, in fact, that a nation state be involved because of the complexity of the operation. That's for most of the biological weapons. The exception might be something like anthrax because it comes from the corpses of dead animals and could be obtained by small fanatic groups such as the group in Japan, Aum Shinrikyo. That's the doomsday cult that released Sarin gas in the Tokyo subway system in 1995 and killed 12 people. But it was after that event that they found that prior to using the Sarin gas, Aum Shinrikyo had actually tried to use anthrax on nine or ten occasions and failed to actually make it work, and that's why they went to the chemical.

CURWOOD: Now, what does this mean, that biological weapons, are they easy for groups of fanatics to use, or are they too difficult?

CARTY: Well, the Aum Shinrikyo example is debated hotly still to this day, and what does it actually show? Some would argue that it shows that it's hard for groups to use these weapons. In fact, the mistake that Aum Shinrikyo made is they used the wrong kind of anthrax. They used the kind of anthrax that is used to make the vaccine for anthrax. And so it's not the kind that produces disease.

However, some scientists do say that there's too much hype about the threat of biological weapons. For example, Milt Leitenberg, he's an Arms Control Specialist with the Federation of American Scientists, and he's worried that a lot of the threat is built up by people who want to, in effect, make money from the threat of biological weapons.

LEITENBERG: There's this whole rabble of contractors. They can't write a study and say this won't happen, because then there's no grant that follows, and they're out of business. I am an Arms Control Specialist. I do think it's a problem of national programs, Iraq and Israel and Iranians, and what's left of the former Soviet program. But all of these terrorist groups with the bathtubs, the kitchen sinks, the garages, that's all nonsense.

CARTY: And that's Milt Leitenberg of the Federation of American Scientists.

CURWOOD: Bob, how much has this debate changed now with these attacks in New York and Washington?

CARTY: Well, Arms Control Specialists point out that the attacks in Washington and New York were very low tech, in a sense, the terrorists using knives to take control of planes, and using the planes as weapons. So, it won't change necessarily the debate about what capacity terrorists have or do not have to organize an attack with biological weapons. However, the ability to avoid detection, to coordinate for hijackings, and their willingness to cause mass murder, these aspects have bio-terrorist experts very, very concerned about the consequences for biological weapons.

CURWOOD: The U.S. Government says that it's spending two billion dollars a year to prevent or mitigate a bio-terrorist attack. Is that enough?

CARTY: Well, there's quite a debate about that, as well. Some would actually say it's perhaps too much or not being spent in the right direction, because you could put it into intelligence gathering, into developing new machines to detect biological weapons, or put into vaccines. The United States, for example, has ordered new stocks of a vaccine for smallpox. One of the disappointments though, in terms of all the measures that are being taken, is the United States' decision to withdraw from talks to put into place a verification mechanism for the Biological Weapons Treaty. There were talks going on for six years. The United States this summer pulled out of the talks, saying that the proposed draft treaty wasn't strong enough. It had too many loopholes. Others say that the United States may be doing this just because of trade reasons. That is, the plan called for inspection of plants, industrial operations, factories that might be able to make this material. And the United States feared that UN inspection teams might have spies in them that would take away industrial or commercial secrets.

CURWOOD: Bob Carty reports on environmental issues for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Bob, thanks for taking this time with us today.

CARTY: My pleasure, Steve.




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