May 1, 1999

Are We Ready? The Threat of Biochemical Terrorism

By: AF Editors

You have to be lucky all the time . . . We have to be lucky just once. -An international terrorist group

Today’s headlines are filled with reports of megaton bombs being dropped over Yugoslavia. The laser-guided capability and pinpoint accuracy of these so-called “smart bombs” are lauded as the cutting edge of modern-day warfare. Yet, lurking behind this cutting edge is an even more dangerous and threatening form of terror: biochemical weapons of mass destruction deliverable not by a $2 billion stealth bomber but in the guise of a two dollar can of hair spray.

Imagine the consequences of a terrorist attack at Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington, DC. Terrorists strike on a busy Monday morning by releasing an aerosol cloud of anthrax spores inside the airport terminal. Anthrax is a highly infectious bacterium and lethal when inhaled. This odorless, invisible agent infects tens of thousands of travelers who pass through the airport over the next 24 hours. Within the next two to six days, thousands become seriously ill with flu-like symptoms and are misdiagnosed by local medical personnel. They die within the week. Hospital resources are strained; mortuaries are full; anthrax vaccine, although it exists, is not readily available; police are overwhelmed; schools and businesses close. And, the terrorists have fled the country undetected.

Seem far-fetched? Dr. John Bartlett, president of the Infectious Disease Society of America, warned lawmakers that a 100-pound release of anthrax spores dropped from a single engine plane flying over the Washington area would lead to more deaths than the nuclear blast at Hiroshima, Japan, that ended World War II.

In 1995, the FBI discovered that Larry Wayne Harris, a microbiologist and resident of Ohio, ordered three vials of bubonic plague from a Maryland supply house and had them delivered to his lab via Federal Express. In a post-delivery exposé, ABC news revealed that the supplier of Harris’s shipment also caters to an international clientele including Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. Although Harris pled guilty to charges of obtaining the bubonic plague under fraudulent circumstances in the spring of 1997, the supplier remains in business.

Consider also the reaction of officials on April 24, 1997, when a petri dish oozing with a red substance labeled anthrax arrived in the mail at B’nai B’rith, a national Jewish organization located in Washington, DC. Police cordoned off an entire city block, quarantined workers in the building for a day, and asked those in surrounding buildings to evacuate the area immediately. The red ooze turned out to be something other than anthrax and the threat was exposed as a hoax. But the mere possibility of anthrax exposure and the reaction of officials were enough to classify the delivery as an act of terrorism.

These stories illustrate the dual threat posed by a possible biochemical terrorist attack in the United States. First, deadly biological agents are readily available. According to the World Directory of Collections of Cultures and Microorganisms, anthrax is sold and shipped by mail from 54 locations worldwide; the plague is sold in 18 places. And, both anthrax and the plague may be purchased over the internet.

Second, America is not prepared to respond to a biochemical terrorist attack. Hospitals do not have access to equipment capable of detecting the odorless, colorless microbes let alone the means to decontaminate an infected area. Even if such detection equipment was in place, medical personnel do not have the technology or the training to treat infected patients. There is no standardized operating procedure for local communities to follow in the event of an attack. All of these vulnerabilities pose a serious threat to national security that the President and Congress have an obligation to address.

Terrorism, by its very nature, is unpredictable. Couple this uncertainty with the increasing production and ready availability of weapons of mass destruction and it is evident why terrorism experts agree that it is not a question of whether we are attacked, but rather a question of when and to what degree. Faced with such a reality, we must act swiftly to defend our borders from new forms of external force including biochemical attacks.

To properly prepare for the threat of a biochemical terrorist attack federal, state, and local officials must coordinate with hospitals and medical personal to ensure a tight-knit defense. Civilian medical and public health communities will be among the first responding to a bioterrorist attack. Therefore, state public health departments must strengthen infectious disease surveillance networks, employ full-time professionals trained to detect and react to threats, enhance laboratory capabilities, build the necessary stockpile of vaccines and antibiotics, and ensure coordinated civilian participation. Hospitals and medical personnel need to be equipped to deal with large numbers of victims who may require decontamination, isolation, or worse, an emergency mortuary.

State and local public health administrators should be trained to work together in assessing the extent of exposure of a released contaminant and coordinate treatment. Terrorism expert Dr. Michael Osterholm testified before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on March 25, 1999, that a biological terrorist attack “can only be successfully addressed through effective, coordinated, public health action working in concert with an informed, quick-acting medical community.”

Coordinated efforts at the local, state, and federal levels will lead to the rapid identification of terrorist agents, control measures to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, and an efficient distribution of stockpiled vaccine and antibiotics. This effort will require significant resources – more than the $10 billion the president recently requested be devoted to bioterrorism preparedness. However, such a sustained campaign of training, education, and funding is necessary to ensure measured progress and the security of American citizens from the next generation of cutting-edge weapons of mass destruction.


Catherine Howell is a government relations representative for VHA Inc. and a law student at American University.