A bioterrorism attack is the deliberate release of viruses, bacteria, or other germs (agents) used to cause illness or death in people, animals, or plants. These agents are typically found in nature, but it is possible that they could be changed to increase their ability to cause disease, make them resistant to current medicines, or to increase their ability to be spread into the environment. Biological agents can be spread through the air, through water, or in food. Terrorists may use biological agents because they can be extremely difficult to detect and do not cause illness for several hours to several days. Some bioterrorism agents, like the smallpox virus, can be spread from person to person and some, like anthrax, cannot.
In the 15th century, smallpox was used on contaminated clothing to defeat South American and Native American forces (Bock, 2001). Again, the use of biological weapons, for which limited protection and containment was available, led to casualties on both sides of battles. Bioterrorism continued to be an effective method of weakening an adversary but it was also difficult to contain. In the Revolutionary War, colonists were vaccinated from the smallpox virus and then used the virus to intentionally infect enemies. This demonstrated a major advancement in the evolution of bioterrorism. Once the ability to defend from biological warfare became possible through medical advancement, the weapons became far more valuable.
As time of biological warfare became more and more sophisticated. Countries were developing weapons that delivered much higher effectiveness and less chance of infecting the wrong party. One significant enhancement in biological weapon development was the first use of anthrax. Anthrax effectiveness was initially limited to victims of large dosages. This became a weapon of choice because it is easily transferred, has a high mortality rate, and could be easily obtained. Also, variants of the anthrax bacterium can be found all around the world making it the biological weapon of choice in the early 19th century. Another property of anthrax that helped fuel its use as a biological weapon is its poor ability to spread far beyond the targeted population.
By the time World War I began, attempts to use anthrax were directed at animal populations. This was ineffective. Instead, the use of poisonous mustard gas became the biological weapon of choice. The sheer horror of its effects lead to a treaty called the Geneva Protocol of 1925. The treaty was created to prevent the use of asphyxiating gas as a method of biological warfare (Brooks, 2001). While this was a significant advancement toward the prevention of biological weapon use, the treaty said nothing about weapon development. Secretly, biological weapon development programs existed in many nations. While no documented instances of biological weapon use exist it is believed that this was primarily due to the programs immaturity and not the unwillingness to use them.
American biological weapon development began in 1942. President Franklin D. Roosevelt placed George W. Merck in charge of the effort to create a development program. These programs continued until 1969, when by executive order President Richard Nixon shut down all programs related to American offensive use of biological weapons (http://fas.org/nuke/guide/usa/cbw/bw.html).
Accusations of the use of biological weapons against North Korea were spread during Vietnam, however it is believed that those accusations were propaganda developed by the North Korean regime to villainize American Armed Forces. As the 1970s passed, global efforts to prevent the development of biological weapons and their use were widespread. In 1972 the prohibition of development, production and stockpiling biological weapons was developed.
In the 1980’s Iraq made substantial efforts to develop and stockpile large amounts of biological weapons. By the end of the 80’s Iraq had several sites dedicated to the research and development of biological warfare. They began to test their findings in the late 80’s. These actions lead to the first Gulf war in which Iraq’s biological weapons were dismantled and destroyed.
Since that time, efforts to use biological warfare has been more apparent in small radical organizations attempting to create fear in the eyes of large groups. Some efforts have been partially effective in creating fear, due to the lack of visibility associated with modern biological weapon use by small organizations. In 1995 a small terrorist group, then called Aum Shinrikyo but today called Aleph, launched a Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system. The attack killed twelve and affected more than 5000. The response of Japanese emergency services successfully prevented an outcome with much higher mortality rates.
In the United States a more recent biological terrorism attack occurred in 2001 when letters laced with infectious anthrax were delivered to news media offices and the U.S Congress (Johnston, 2005). The letters killed 5. While many believed this attack to be in relation to Iraq’s development of biological weapons, tests on the anthrax strand used in the attack pointed to a domestic source.
Planning may involve the development of biological identification systems.
Until recently in the United States, most biological defense strategies have been geared to protecting soldiers on the battlefield rather than ordinary people in cities. Financial cutbacks have limited the tracking of disease outbreaks. Some outbreaks, such as food poisoning due to E. coli or Salmonella, could be of either natural or deliberate origin.
Biological agents are relatively easy to obtain by terrorists and are becoming more threatening in the U.S., and laboratories are working on advanced detection systems to provide early warning, identify contaminated areas and populations at risk, and to facilitate prompt treatment. Methods for predicting the use of biological agents in urban areas as well as assessing the area for the hazards associated with a biological attack are being established in major cities. In addition, forensic technologies are working on identifying biological agents, their geographical origins and/or their initial son. forts include decontamination technologies to restore facilities without causing additional environmental concerns (2).
In 1999, the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Biomedical Informatics deployed the first automated bioterrorism detection system, called RODS (Real-Time Outbreak Disease Surveillance). RODS is designed to draw collect data from many data sources and use them to perform signal detection, that is, to detect the a possible bioterrorism event at the earliest possible moment. RODS, and other systems like it, collect data from sources including clinic data, laboratory data, and data from over-the-counter drug sales. In 2000, Michael Wagner, the codirector of the RODS laboratory, and Ron Aryel, a subcontractor, conceived of the idea of obtaining live data feeds from "non-traditional" (non-health-care) data sources. The RODS laboratory's first efforts eventually led to the establishment of the National Retail Data Monitor, a system which collects data from 20,000 retail locations nation-wide.
On February 5, 2002, George W. Bush visited the RODS laboratory and used it as a model for a $300 million spending proposal to equip all 50 states with biosurveillance systems. In a speech delivered at the nearby Masonic temple, Bush compared the RODS system to a modern "DEW" line (referring to the Cold War ballistic missile early warning system).
The principles and practices of biosurveillance, a new interdisciplinary science, were defined and described in the Handbook of Biosurveillance, edited by Michael Wagner, Andrew Moore and Ron Aryel, and published in 2006. Biosurveillance is the science of real-time disease outbreak detection. Its principles apply to both natural and man-made epidemics (bioterrorism).
Data which potentially could assist in early detection of a bioterrorism event include many categories of information. Health-related data such as that from hospital computer systems, clinical laboratories, electronic health record systems, medical examiner record-keeping systems, 911 call center computers, and veterinary medical record systems could be of help; researchers are also considering the utility of data generated by ranching and feedlot operations, food processors, drinking water systems, school attendance recording, and physiologic monitors, among others. Intuitively, one would expect systems which collect more than one type of data to be more useful than systems which collect only one type of information (such as single-purpose laboratory or 911 call-center based systems), and be less prone to false alarms, and this appears to be the case.
In Europe, disease surveillance is beginning to be organized on the continent-wide scale needed to track a biological emergency. The system not only monitors infected persons, but attempts to discern the origin of the outbreak.
Researchers are experimenting with devices to detect the existence of a threat:
New research shows that ultraviolet avalanche photodiodes offer the high gain, reliability and robustness needed to detect anthrax and other bioterrorism agents in the air. The fabrication methods and device characteristics were described at the 50th Electronic Materials Conference in Santa Barbara on June 25, 2008. Details of the photodiodes were also published in the February 14, 2008 issue of the journal Electronics Letters and the November 2007 issue of the journal IEEE Photonics Technology Letters.
Bioterrorism is inherently limited as a warfare tactic because of the uncontrollable nature of the agent involved. A biological weapon is useful to a terrorist group mainly as a method of creating mass panic and disruption to a society. However, technologists such as Bill Joy have warned of the potential power which genetic engineering might place in the hands of future bio-terrorists; a bacterial agent might be engineered for genetic or geographical selectivity. Such a scenario formed the plot of the science fiction novel The White Plague and the action novel Area 7.
The genomic revolution requires scientists to follow a recognised Code of Conduct. The 'dual-use' technology dilemma implicates issues further; good scientific inventions can be reapplied along a sinister vector.