Bioterrorism specifically refers to the use of biological agents such as bacteria, germs, or viruses to cause sickness or death in a population. A bioterrorist can contaminate the food, air, or water supply with infectious agents designed to cause illness. Bioterrorism presents difficulties in tracing the source of the terrorist act because symptoms may not appear for days. It is difficult to know when, where, and how a person was infected. Anyone can be at risk for bioterrorism at any time. Bioterrorism does not only affect combatants or enemy military personnel, it affects innocent people in the general population. Biodefense refers to measures taken to help eliminate or reduce the possibility of a bioterrorist attack on the population. Biodefense in the United States became an important issue in the public eye after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Towers. This research will examine U.S. policies on bioterrorism, focusing on an assessment of the real risks of an attack on the United States.
History of Biological Warfare
They idea of using infectious agents is not a new one. One of the earliest reported cases of bioterrorism involved the use of rye infected with ergot. It was used in the sixth century BCE by the Assyrians in an attack against the Israelites (Dennis, Wang & Suppes, et al., n.d.). In 190 BCE, Hannibal placed venomous snakes on an enemy ship and won a victory over King Pergamon as a result (Dennis, Wang & Suppes, et al., n.d.). Vvenomous snakes are a biological agent, therefore would be considered Bioterrorism.
Rotting dead bodies have been used commonly as a source of bioterrorism since around 300 BCE. The Greeks and Romans would place dead bodies in the wells of their enemies to contaminate their water supply. Often the bodies of dead soldiers were used. To increase the effects of arrow wounds, the tips of the arrows would be dipped into rotting flesh before firing them at the enemy (Dennis, Wang & Suppes, et al., n.d). If they did not die immediately from the arrow wound, they had a greater chance of dying from an infection later. In this way Bioterrorism was used to enhance the effects of conventional warfare.
Since these early incidents, bubonic plague, smallpox, and anthrax have been used as bioterrorism agents. The method of delivery of these agents has varied, but the intention has been the same. Methods of delivery have included catapulting plague infected bodies and heads over city walls and giving smallpox infected blankets as gifts (Dennis, Wang & Suppes, et al., n.d.).
Prior to 1870, biological agents were suspected of causing disease, but this theory had not yet been proven. In 1870, Robert Koch proved that biological agents spread disease. He injected anthrax spores into mice and proved that microorganisms for the source of disease. This led to the development of vaccines by Louis Pasteur. In 1882, the first anthrax vaccine was developed and given to farm animals in France to prevent the spread of disease among livestock (Dennis, Wang & Suppes, et al., n.d.). The first biological attack of the 20th century involved an incident where German agents infected the horses and mules of Allied troops on the Eastern front. The disease caused several human fatalities before an eradication program could stop the spread of the disease (Dennis, Wang & Suppes, et al., n.d.).
In 1940, Japanese planes dropped plague infected fleas in China causing plague epidemics to follow. In 1942, an experiment was carried out by the British military where anthrax spores were dropped into a sheep population on a small island off the coast of Scotland. All of the sheep were dead within 72 hours. The island remained contaminated until 1986. Water and formaldehyde were used to decontaminate the island (Dennis, Wang & Suppes, et al., n.d.). Prior to that it was considered uninhabitable, demonstrating the bioterrorism has immediate and long-term effects on the population. In 1942 the U.S. military made 5000 bombs filled with anthrax spores (Dennis, Wang & Suppes, et al., n.d.). We do know that the Japanese had plans to drop biological agents on the U.S., but they were unable to develop long-range balloons for the deployment. They planned to use the same methods used against the Chinese to drop plague infected fleas in San Diego (Dennis, Wang & Suppes, et al., n.d.).
In 1953, the U.S. began the development of countermeasures against bioterrorism. Vaccines were developed to protect U.S. troops from biological attacks. Since that time, the U.S. has increased efforts to develop countermeasures, should an attack occur. Political measures and diplomacy have attempted to end the threat of the use of biological agents against U.S. citizens. In 1969, President Richard Nixon signed an executive order to cease production and research on biological agents in the United States. This led to the destruction of all biological weapons in the United States in 1972. A Convention on Biological Weapons was held the same year, with signatories from over 140 nations (Dennis, Wang & Suppes, et al., n.d.).
Where Do We Go From Here?
The 1972 Convention on Biological Weapons should have theoretically ended the possibility of attack using biological agents on a population. However, these agents are still around and they still continue to pose a threat. In 1979, a biological weapons plant in Sverlovosk, Russia accidentally released anthrax spores and killed at least 66 people (Dennis, Wang & Suppes, et al., n.d.). This demonstrated that the biological weapons of mass destruction are still around and that they can be effective.
In 1984, the Rajneeshee Cult infected a salad bar in Oregon with salmonella causing about 750 people to become sick. The fatality rate for salmonella is low and the incident drew very little media attention (Dennis, Wang & Suppes, et al., n.d.). In 1995, a cult in Japan released Sarin gas into a Tokyo subway killing 12, and injuring thousands (Dennis, Wang & Suppes, et al., n.d.). In 1996, an angry hospital worker made 12 of her coworkers sick by contaminating doughnuts and muffins with dysentery. In 2001, anthrax contaminated letters were mailed to prominent people in the United States. According to the CDC, this attempt infected 23 people and five died (Dennis, Wang & Suppes, et al., n.d.).
These incidents demonstrate that even though 140 countries signed the convention, using biological agents as an act of terrorism are still a threat. The United States has already been the victim of one bioterrorist attack, even though few people know about it. Regardless of whether the attack is well-known or not, the incidents previously mentioned indicate that the threat of using a bioagent in a terrorist attack is alive and well. Unlike a bombing or other type of attack, the citizens would not even know that they have been attacked until several days later or possibly longer. This makes it difficult to track the agents and the terrorists. By the time the attack is discovered, they can be long gone and out of the country.
The United States has expanded its efforts to protect its citizens from a bioagent attack, particularly since the World Trade Tower bombings. Much research and development has gone into systems that could help to provide early warning in the case of an attack. The problem is that our society provides many different points of entry for biological contaminants into the system. Our water system comes from diverse sources, the air moves freely, and our food chain is highly complicated. There are many points a potential contamination that cannot be controlled, particularly when much of our food originates in other countries. The problem with developing an early warning system is that it would be difficult to develop a system that can account for each and every point of entry for biological contaminants (Wyatt-Lorenz, 2009). Once the disease has began to produce symptoms, then the Medical System can detect it, but there is some time between the initial attack and discovery.
Are We Being Overzealous?
Monitoring for biological agents can only go so far. In light of that, efforts to protect the public have focused on developing a response, should a mass attack occur. The office of homeland security is responsible for developing a warning system and responses, should an attack occur. Unfortunately, the best that we can do is to prepare for a hypothetical scenario, as we do not know what the real scenario might look like. Our best preparation efforts are only as good as our best guess.
Preparation efforts have ranged from public service announcements that instruct the public health how to survive a mass quarantine, a program to distribute vaccines, to other efforts designed to develop a response to a bioagent attack. The threat of an attack using biological agents has created quite a bit of hype in the media and in the public. Like any terrorist attack, it is designed to create the greatest amount of damage, and more importantly, instill the greatest amount of fear and…