The Cobra Event” written by Richard Preston in 1998 is a science thriller which narrates a botched bioterrorism offensive on the USA. In the book, the perpetrator of the attack, clones a virulent smallpox genome with a highly contagious common cold virus, and cranks out a genetically engineered virus, codenamed “Cobra”. The resultant virus which is as contagious as common cold and as deadly as smallpox, manoeuvres itself to the brain of the infected person, where it replicates exponentially and annihilates the brain cells. As a consequence, of its relentless onslaught the infected person is left to die of a disease called “Brain-pox”. In 1998, when President Bill Clinton came across Preston’s book, he found it so unputdownable that he ended up doing an all-nighter .By the time he finished reading the book, he was so deeply changed that he went on to become the first world leader to focus on bio-defence and create a new division in 1999 called the “National Pharmaceutical Stockpile”, in order to store medicines for a bioterrorism eventuality.
Biological agents have been used since antiquity to attack the enemies. The ancient Hittites marched victims of plague into the cities of their enemies; Herodotus talks of archers’ firing arrows dipped in manure to cause infection. In 650 BC, Assyrian politicians dumped fungus from rye into their opponents’ wells, causing people to suffer from fatal ergot poisoning. Tatars of the 14th century disseminated bubonic plague by vaulting diseased corpses into towns. During World War II, many of the countries involved looked into biowarfare with great interest. The Allies built facilities capable of churning out anthrax spores, brucellosis, and botulism toxins. Thankfully, the war ended before they were used.
It was, however, the Japanese who made massive use of biological weapons during World War II. The Japanese biowarfare program which was known as “Unit 731” consisted of more than 150 buildings in Manchuria near the town of Pingfan, five satellite camps, and a staff of more than 3,000 scientists. The Japanese Army Air Force dropped ceramic bombs full of fleas carrying the bubonic plague on Ningbo, China. And during the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union created large stockpiles of biological agents for use in war and against civilian populations Bioterrorism is the intentional release of viruses, bacteria, toxins or other deleterious agents to cause illness or death in people, animals, or plants. Terrorists would find biological agents convenient because they are tough to detect and do not produce symptoms of the disease for several hours to several days which would afford them sufficient time to make good their escape after the attack. They are also looked upon as an attractive weapon as they are relatively easy and inexpensive to obtain. Besides, they can also be quickly disseminated, and are very effective at causing widespread fear and panic beyond the actual physical damage to a state or country. To top it all, even harmless bacteria and viruses can be weaponised into highly dangerous and virulent pathogens through gene-transfer/cloning or by way of gene editing.
It’s for this reason that we have witnessed some incidents of bioterrorism in the present century. In 1972 police in Chicago arrested two college students, Allen Schwander and Stephen Pera, who had planned a bioterror event of poisoning the city’s water supply with typhoid and other bacteria. However, the first known bioterrorist attack of the 20th century, also the single most massive bioterrorist attack so far on U.S. soil, happened in 1984 in Oregon, USA. It was perpetrated by the followers of Osho Rajneesh, who wanted to start a charter school by winning approval, in the local elections. They attempted to gain control of the local elections by infecting the salad bars with a bacteria called Salmonella to prevent people from voting. The attack affected 751 people with severe food poisoning. There were, however, no fatalities. Similarly, in June 1993 in Japan, the religious group Aum Shinrikyo released anthrax in Tokyo causing a foul odour. The attack was a total failure, as the group had mistakenly used the vaccine strain of the bacterium instead of a pathogenic strain.
The bioterrorist agents which are virulent and are likely to be used by terrorists are anthrax (Bacillus anthracis), botulism (Clostridium botulinum), plague (Yersinia pestis), smallpox (variola major), tularemia (Francisella tularensis) and viral haemorrhagic pathogens(filoviruses and arenaviruses). Besides them, many other agents could also potentially be used in a bioterrorist attack.
In 2001, anthrax-laced letters killed five people, hospitalised several people and terrorised the US. Initially, the attacks were reckoned to be the handiwork of Al Qaeda. But, F.B.I in 2010 closed its investigation by weirdly concluding that the 2001 attacks on the offices of several US Senators, were carried out by Bruce E. Ivins, a microbiologist at the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infection Disease.
In the USA during the 1950s and ‘60s, Army researchers became interested in weaponising tularemia, highly infectious bacteria but seldom lethal. It has been more than 40 years since the American bioweapons program shut down, and many of the details remain classified. But Joel McCleary, a former aide to Jimmy Carter, is reported to have stated that in several hundred experiments, tularemia was weaponised to bowdacious strength by mixing it in a slurry with another agent, which bolstered its effects exponentially, causing it to devastate the human body. In several large outdoor tests, scientists drifted clouds of tularemia called “killing winds” over cages of live monkeys to evaluate its pathogenicity. They found that about 50 and 60 pounds of freeze-dried tularemia could stamp out about 60 percent of the population of London.
Another agent which terrorists would want to get hold of is the Smallpox virus which causes a highly contagious and incurable disease. Though eradicated in the 1970s. Its cultures are still being maintained by the governments of the USA and Russia. Some believe that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, cultures of smallpox have become available in other countries. One can imagine the disastrous consequences if rogue politicians or terrorists were to get hold of the smallpox strains.
The deadliest agents of all the terrorists would want to use is the Ebola virus disease. It causes high fatality rates ranging from 25-90% with an average of 50 %. No cure currently exists, although vaccines are in development. Death from Ebola virus disease is commonly due to multiple organ failure and hypovolemic shock. The Soviet Union investigated the use of filoviruses for biological warfare, and the Aum Shinrikyo group unsuccessfully attempted to obtain cultures of Ebola virus.
How would a bioterrorist attack look? “Operation Dark Winter” was the cryptonym for an advanced-level bio-terrorist attack simulation conducted from June 22-23, 2001. It was designed to execute a mock version of a covert and widespread smallpox attack on the United States. It took place at Andrews Air Force Base and was coordinated by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies. During the exercise, as the smallpox virus started to spread, first in Oklahoma and then in pockets across the nation, the participants quickly discovered that the country had no standing response plan and only enough vaccine to protect 5 percent of the population. Within weeks, as many as a million people in the United States were estimated dead. “Dark Winter” exposed the inadequacies of national emergency response during the use of a biological weapon against the Americans.
Former U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman, in an interview to CNBC in March 2017, is reported to have stated that a worldwide pandemic could end the lives of more people than a nuclear war. Lieberman also expressed worry that a terrorist group like ISIS could develop a synthetic influenza strain and introduce it to the world to kill the civilian. In a New York Times report, the Gates Foundation has forebode that a microbial outbreak similar to that of the Spanish Influenza pandemic could end up killing more than 360 million people worldwide, despite the
widespread availability of vaccines and modern medicare. The report cited increased globalisation, rapid international air travel, and urbanisation as increased reasons for concern.
The next 100 years is being described as the “century of biology.” Incredibly rapid and sweeping changes in transgenics and enhanced bio-production technologies would make it easier for terrorists to bioengineer bio-weapons. Most biosecurity concerns today appear to be stemming from synthetic biology and the risk of using the new technology to make lethal viruses in the lab. Similarly, the new war against bioterrorism will also be waged with genomics, immunology and biotechnology. Scientists at Harvard Medical School have found a gene variation that makes mice resistant to anthrax, and another group is reported to have developed a molecule that confers protection to rats against lethal doses of anthrax toxin. Recently, the CRISPR/Cas system has emerged as a promising technique for gene editing. I shall discuss the CRISPR/cas system and the threat of bioterrorism in India separately in future write-ups.
Finally, a terrorist or a bio-terrorist commits acts of terror due to lack of awareness and education, to help him realise the importance of diversity and the
underlying spiritual unity of humankind. Spirituality helps an individual, to develop an awareness of the oneness of humanity. It is only through this awareness and the uplifting of human consciousness that disease of terrorism can be uprooted from this planet.