In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001, several American media people and members of Congress received letters containing a white powder. It turned that this powder was anthrax bacteria, and five of the recipients subsequently died of the dangerous disease. This attack is the latest known example of bioterrorism, but far from the first.
One well-documented example is from 1346 AD, when the Tartars besieged the city of Kaffa on the Crimean peninsula in present-day Ukraine. As bubonic plague erupted among the Tartars, they used catapults to throw plague-infested corpses over the city wall to spread the disease within the city, and create terror. The inhabitants fled from Kaffa and relinquished it to the Tartars. It is thought that traders from Genoa who had anchored in the city brought the bubonic plague to Europe and hence changed world history. The Black Death killed between 30 and 60 per cent of Europe’s population, and this probably makes the Tartars’ bioterrorism the most successful terrorist attack in world history, even if the original goal most likely wasn’t quite as spectacular as the ultimate result.
In the mid-18th century, war broke out between British and French colonies in North America, and the Native Americans in the area were generally on the side of the Frenchmen. To address this ‘issue’, the British gave the natives blankets infected with smallpox. The strategy worked – a deadly smallpox epidemic broke out among the natives in the area.
During the First World War, Germany tried its hand at biological warfare, directed not at people but at horses. German agents successfully spread the now-rare equine disease glanders in the United States, Great Britain, Russia, France and Rumania. This resulted in delays to troop movements, supply trains and artillery transports.
After the First World War, there was a growing awareness that the use of biological weapons in hostilities could have unforeseen and far-reaching consequences, and from 1925 onwards the Geneva Convention prohibited the use of biological weapons in warfare. Not all superpowers signed the convention right away – Japan and USA, for example, didn’t sign it until 1970 and 1975, respectively. A new convention against the use of bioweapons, developed by the UN, was signed by most members in 1972.
Conventions certainly have their place, but it is well known that terrorists have little respect for them, and the Geneva Convention hasn’t prevented the use of biological weapons in terrorist attacks. The very same year that the UN convention was signed, two nihilist American students planned to infect the Chicago water supply with typhoid fever and other bacteria, but they were arrested before putting their plans into action.
A notable recent example of bioterrorism is from Japan, where the Aum Shinrikyo religious movement spread anthrax bacteria on the streets in 1993. Nobody was infected, and it turned out that the sect had mistakenly used a significantly weakened bacteria meant for inoculating animals. Aum Shinrikyo later became notorious for spreading sarin gas in Tokyo’s metro, in an action that killed thirteen people and influenced the health of up to a thousand more.
Bacteriological weapons aren’t particularly well suited for conventional warfare, because they are very difficult to target accurately. One example of this is from Great Britain. During the Second World War, the Allies tested anthrax as a bioweapon by exploding bombs containing anthrax spores above the uninhabited Gruinard Island off the coast of Scotland. The idea was to use anthrax as a weapon against the Germans, should the D-Day operations fail. In 1943, an outbreak of anthrax occurred among livestock on the coastal area facing the island. Subsequently, attempts were made to disinfect the island, using measures that included burning off all its vegetation. These attempts failed because the spores had penetrated into the soil, and even today the island is off limits because of a risk of infection.
Terrorism, on the other hand, has other goals than hitting precise targets. The purpose is usually to spread death and terror as widely as possible, and the perpetrators are often located far from where the attacks take place. Here, bioweapons are far better suited, particularly in the light of the global fear engendered by the relatively few deaths caused by recent outbreaks of bird and swine flu.
Only 336 people have died from bird flu since 2003. One reason for this is that the virus isn’t very contagious – only people who have direct contact with dead birds risk infection. On the other hand, about 60 per cent of those infected die – an unusually high mortality rate. By comparison, the Spanish Flu, which in 1918–19 infected every third human being on the planet, had a mortality rate of between 10 and 20 per cent.
In a laboratory in Amsterdam, however, a group of scientists has developed a variant of bird flu that infects through the air. In a test in which about 40 ferrets were put in cages near infected ferrets, every single ferret died from the disease. It wasn’t difficult to make this deadly flu virus, says the lead scientist, Dr. Ron Fouchier – it was just a matter of mutating a few genes. This is confirmed by a team of scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which independently created a similar virus.
If one of these viruses were to get loose, it could lead to several hundred million deaths. Naturally, this danger has led to demands that these viruses be destroyed. However, such an action would not prevent a similar mutation from happening in nature – or in a terrorist lab. On the contrary, research into the dangerous viruses may help in developing a vaccine against them.
How difficult would it be to terrorists to produce a deadly new virus for use in bioterrorism? The scientists in Amsterdam and Wisconsin have access to expensive and advanced equipment and laboratories that are heavily protected against leaks – not something you just build in a mountain cave. However, it doesn’t take much. The equipment needed for reading and copying DNA – an important step en route to modifying genes – costs many thousands of dollars, but the OpenPCR organisation has developed an open-source version that can be purchased as a kit for just USD 512. More is required to modify DBA, particularly in a directed manner, but it’s no more complex than it could (in principle) be done on a kitchen table –particularly if you’re not too worried about safety.
Not that it is necessary to develop new killer diseases in labs for the purpose of bioterrorism. We already have several existing diseases that are well suited for terrorism, as we have seen with the use of anthrax. Another example is ebola, a virus originating in Africa. This leads to a painful death as a result of organ failure for up to 90 per cent of those infected. Ebola is classified as a potential Category A bioweapon – the most dangerous class.
Biological weapons are particularly well suited for terrorist attacks because they are difficult to track and difficult to protect yourself against and because even small quantities can lead to massive death tolls if you don’t detect and isolate the contagion in time. Safety systems in airports cannot register the presence of bacteria or viruses in the form of powders or liquids, not to mention a voluntarily infected suicide terrorist. The growing global traffic of people and products makes it difficult to prevent or hinder diseases from spreading, before it is too late.
In the future, when our knowledge about genes and ability to modify them has increased, we may imagine biological terrorist weapons targeting specific population groups. There are genetic variations in populations of people, and this fact is currently used to map past migrations. In theory, the same genetic differences can be made targets for tailored bacteria or viruses in such a way that bioweapons could target only people with genes for dark skin or the descendants of a specific ancestor, for example.
The worst-case scenario is that an ever-so-accurately tailored virus or bacteria will mutate after being released and thus hit not only the intended target group, but also all the rest of us. Among doomsday scenarios, this ranks among the very most likely. The Spanish Flu killed 3 to 6 per cent of all the people in the world. Today, that would correspond to 200–400 million people. A similarly contagious disease with greater mortality would be able to kill many more, particularly if a deliberate effort was made to spread it. A global response unit would not be able to prevent a bioterrorism attack of this sort, but it would be able to do much to contain it.