Skip to comments.Biological Terrorism
Posted on 09/22/2001 11:26:18 PM PDT by nunya bidness
Produced by Chris Bullock
Hear this Background Briefing in Real Audio
How many scientists does it take to scare everyone? Three. One to say it's possible to kill more people with better bugs. Another to make the bugs that do it, and a third to tell a terrorist exactly how to release them.
Nervous? Well, it's a fact of life and better to get real about biological weapons than be....a dead ostrich? (Summer Series)
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Chris Bullock: Hello. This is Background Briefing, and I'm Chris Bullock.
A growing number of scientists are urging us to think about what would happen if two unseen, but powerfully destructive forces were combined: terrorism and deadly germs.
The experts are talking about the threat of germ warfare. This is not a new threat, in many ways predates nuclear warfare, but the science of germs has become a great deal more sophisticated and sinister.
Over the past few weeks, hundreds of the world's top microbiologists and virologists have been in Australia, talking about all the good work that's going on, the life-affirming science of discovery and disease control, as well as what they call the 'dark science'.
One afternoon was set aside to talk about bio terrorism, and this is an edited version of that forum.
The forum was chaired by Professor D.A. Henderson, Director of the Johns Hopkins Centre for Biodefence Studies.
DA Henderson: I am DA Henderson. We have for you an extraordinary group of people this afternoon to speak, probably as outstanding a group as you could find anywhere in the world.
Since 1990 when I became a science adviser to President Bush, and later Deputy Assistant Secretary of Health, I have been kept reasonably well informed of a biological weapons threat, and have had to deal with this as a policy matter.
Until the mid-1990s I can say that the possible use of biological weapons was of concern to policy makers but in fact it was a threat which seemed to all of us, reasonably remote. For many of the scientists here, as well as others, I suspect that this may be a first exposure, to some extremely unpleasant realities. You will be hearing much more about this over the months and years ahead, that is for certain. Bio Terrorism is a subject with which this audience must take a more active participatory role because all of you, including myself, all of us in the infectious disease world, willingly or not, will be the principal actors, the first responders when a bio weapons attack does occur.
Chris Bullock: Some of the germs of first choice for warfare you'll have heard about: Smallpox, Anthrax, Ebola, Plague, and there are many, many more.
There have been naturally occurring outbreaks of Ebola in Africa, and plague, in India in recent years. The most serious outbreak of smallpox that we know of, happened in Yugoslavia in 1972 and we'll hear about that a little bit later. But it's important to remember that the germs used for weapons are engineered to be far more potent than the naturally occurring strains.
Weapons-grade smallpox has never been deliberately or accidentally released, but anthrax has, and that was in Russia in 1979. There is no fully effective vaccine available for the anthrax strain used in weapons and the fatality rate is thought to be close to 100% for those who inhale the anthrax spores directly. Anthrax infection starts with flu-like symptoms and over a period of days progresses to severe breathing problems, shock and then death.
The death toll following the Russian accident in 1979 has been kept secret, but Professor Henderson used slides to show the impact of the accident.
DA Henderson: We had in 1979 the epidemic which occurred in Sverdlovsk in Russia, and this being roughly the outline of the city and a bio weapons plant was right here, where they were milling anthrax to produce some of this fine powder which would be suitable for an aerosol. The wind was blowing, the prevalent wind was on this axis, and from that point, a number of cases occurred, extending out about three miles from the factory that was there. The number of cases is at least thought to be 80, possibly as many as 200, but the data are very slim indeed because the KGB moved in and took away most of the information.
These are villages along the way where animals died of anthrax. So the anthrax carried out about 30 miles. And the release, if you have a release with anthrax as an aerosol cloud, it's invisible, you can't smell it, you can't taste it, you don't know that it's passed through, it behaves more like a gas than a suspension because of the very fine 2-5 micron particle size if it's produced properly, and it penetrates interior spaces as well as exterior spaces. It has been shown in some of the studies that were done back in the 1950s, 1960s, that an aerosol cloud laid down the line could easily go 50-100 miles and infect over that entire area, leaving these spores which are extremely hardy, and really could - it's going to be a problem to clean up because of the difficulty of dealing with these spores.
Chris Bullock: There is currently an outbreak of anthrax in Siberia, naturally-occurring anthrax, that is, which is relatively common in cattle in some parts of the world. News reports say that some villagers in Siberia contracted the disease from infected cattle meat, and armed guards have cordoned off the village to try and isolate the outbreak.
Again, it's important to remember that the germs developed for weapons are much stronger and less treatable than the naturally occurring strains; and to understand what terrorists might have, you need to know what might be available.
In 1972 most of the nations of the world signed an international treaty to ban the production of germ warfare agents, but no agreement has ever been reached on which specific germs should be banned.
Since the Gulf War we've learned that Iraq had chemical and biological warheads for hundreds of short and medium range weapons. Iraq started its biological weapons program 30 years ago, setting up the two-tiered production process that is considered to be the signature mark of any biological weapons program: there's the civilian tier, where the scientists create the germs, and the military tier where the weapons are developed to carry the germs.
Hamish Killip has been on more than 50 inspection trips to Iraq with the United Nations weapons inspection team, UNSCOM. He explained how far the Iraqis had got by the time the Gulf War started, and how the Iraqi program began.
Hamish Killip: When they first started, they did I suspect, what most of you as academics would do if you were faced with a research topic of which you had no knowledge: they rushed off and they did a literature survey. Interestingly, they very quickly found that one of the best sources for the information they wanted was that series of volumes produced by SIPRI, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, in the late '60s, early '70s. It's a meticulous piece of work, almost all the sources are cited, and from that they were able to make demands on international libraries for many of the original source articles.
To give you an example of the sort of time that saved, it was possible to go straight from those articles and find fairly obscure patents which would give you details of specific types of dissemination equipment rather than having to make very detailed searches. But as time went on and they started doing their tests, particularly the field tests, clearly the thoughts about the use of these weapons started to become more sophisticated. And I think a key thing for us is that if you look at what was happening towards the latter part of 1990, when Iraq was facing the real possibility of conflict, we see other figures joining the program, people who had understanding of viruses, who started to look at a more innovative approach to the whole problem. They were looking at what local isolates they could use, they were looking at what indigenous immunity the soldiers of Iraq had that could be exploited against people who did not have it. They were looking at the effects of particular symptoms on their opponents and on themselves, and the fact that it might matter more to their opponents than to themselves.
I think it's true to say that if the conflict had gone on for much longer, then we would have started to see that kind of thing being exploited. Clearly it would have been a very serious matter. And perhaps this is the most significant weapon. Just before the bombardment, Iraq embarked on a program to equip one of its aircraft with an aircraft drop-tank. This is an external fuel tank that contains liquid that can be ejected. This would have held 2,000 litres, it would quite easily have knocked out something like a divisional area. It is an extremely clandestine weapon and certainly was rather like the sophistication of thinking over viruses, was showing the way in which this particular program was heading.
Chris Bullock: Hamish Killip.
While Iraq is the most publicised of the countries with biological weapons - which by the way are known quaintly as BWs by the scientists - as many as 15 other countries are known or thought to have developed them, including Iran, Israel the two Koreas, South Africa, China, India and Russia. Britain and the United States each had substantial BW stocks which they claim to have destroyed.
The next speaker, former British Intelligence analyst, Dr Christopher Davis, used slides to show just how far the British and Americans had got before they scrapped their biological weapons.
Christopher Davis: This gentleman here is an officer in the Royal Air Force, he's in the back of a Lancaster bomber and this is a biological weapon. At least it would have been. It dates back to 1943, there were five-million of these produced. They are linseed-oil cattle cake, and they were what Churchill and the British government decided to have up their sleeve as their ultimate weapon in case the Nazi Germans should do something unpleasant to the United Kingdom, this would be their retaliation. Under the Geneva Convention they were in fact allowed this. These contained anthrax and they were a weapon to be used against cattle. The cattle would sniff these out when they were dropped on the ground and so we would undermine the economy of Germany in this way.
Chris Bullock: The allies of World War II were the first to develop sophisticated BWs. The British were the first to abandon them after the war, preferring nuclear weapons. The United States kept going until the end of the 1960s.
Christopher Davis: It's often been said that the United States program was a failure, it didn't work, that's why they abandoned it, and it was pretty small change. This is not so. I will give you just a couple of facts off here: there were seven BW agents weaponised and stockpiled by 1969. That means you've gone through the entire program of research, from the literature all the way up to producing weapons that you can deploy. One of the most fascinating things which I always point out on this slide is the US Naval BW trials flotilla. If it had gone off on its own in some unilateral declaration of independence, it would have formed the fifth largest Navy in the world, and that was just for the trials. This gives you an idea of just how big the program was. Huge.
Some things that were looked at: a biological agent capability for Polaris, never done, but certainly looked at. The Snark cruise missile project, that was never produced but that was the way that the industrial BW program of the United States was going for a proper dissemination system, and in fact in 1969 just before it closed down they were seeing the results of successful trials in the Pacific.
Chris Bullock: Exactly which germs were test sprayed over the middle of the Pacific remains a secret. The Americans were trying out a mixture of biological agents, most likely sprayed from aircraft tanks.
During this time the West knew the Soviets were also developing biological weapons, but it wasn't until 20 years later, at the end of the 1980s, that the extent of the Soviet program became clearer.
President Gorbachev invited a small group of Western experts to go in and have a look at some of the Soviet biological facilities. Christopher Davis was one of them.
Christopher Davis: There were two programs, a military program which had been going for many, many years, but then in the 1970s started off a completely new program, a civilian program based, locked behind a biotechnology industry front, if you like. This grew and grew and grew, and in the end it almost sucked up the flower of a generation of life scientists, and biomedical scientists. It was where you were if you were doing some of the most advanced and most sophisticated stuff, this was "Biopreparat", it was extremely secret, vast scope as I've said, a huge number of institutes, the highest political backing right from the very, very top. Huge finance. We've said how cheap it is to do some of this bio warfare stuff, but you do actually need a lot of money if you're going to do a big program, and they certainly have that. Extremely large agent capacities in the end, of the order of hundreds, even thousands of tons spread and multiplied across the country. And in place, mobilisation plans to be able to take all this production from zero to weapons in a relatively short period of time.
What happened to the plans of all this stuff in the Soviet Union? Well let's pose an answer: what would you do? You'd destroy most of them, you'd keep one copy and squirrel it away and you'd bury it somewhere where no-one else could find it, wouldn't you? I leave you to guess what they did.
What's going on in the military facilities? Well we visited some of these civilian Biopreparat facilities, but we never got back into the closed military facilities at all, and no-one really knows what's happening to this day.
What about the personnel? Well obviously the whole program shrunk, and much of it went away and the economics of the new Russian State are extremely poor, and the scientists have been out of work, or not paid, and there is a great worry that some of those scientists may have gone abroad to serve other States or other groups' purposes, with material possibly.
What about the flora and fauna? I put this in just to remind you again about the problems of being not only humans as a target, but anti-livestock and anti-plant, and in Australia and places like New Zealand and elsewhere, this is an extremely sensitive issue.
Chris Bullock: The sensitivity in Australia and New Zealand is because of the size and importance of the farming sectors.
When the Soviets were developing their germs through the 60s, 70s and 80s, the West was suffering from what Christopher Davis calls 'nuclear blindness'; the US and Britain, he says, could not see beyond the nuclear threat.
The real breakthrough in Western knowledge about the Soviet's biological weapons program came with the defection to the United States in 1992 of Dr Ken Alibek. Ken Alibek, (that's his Westernised name) worked at the top of the Soviet Union's Bioweapons Directorate for 20 years. He's detailed the germ agents they developed, such as anthrax, smallpox, Ebola, Venezuelan encephalitis and many other genetically engineered bugs for which there is no vaccine or prophylactic treatment.
Ken Alibek told of his surprise at the difference in mentality between Washington and the Kremlin about what should and shouldn't be used in germ warfare.
Ken Alibek: When I came to the United States we had a lot of discussions on how for example one or another country would be developing biological weapons. And do you know what was interesting to me, it's a widely accepted idea in this country that biological weapons could be developed just in one case; if there is protection or treatment or prophylaxis against one another agent. In the United States, until this country terminated its program, there was a requirement; if there was no treatment or prophylaxis you cannot use a given agent for developing and manufacturing biological weapons. People were trying just to apply exactly the same mentality to other countries involved in developing biological weapons. For example, for the Soviet Union, the best biological weapons were biological weapons without any possible treatment and prophylaxis. Ebola was considered one of the best possible agents for biological weapons; Marburg, smallpox and huge number of attempts to genetically alter diseases like plague, anthrax, tuleramia.
In the late '80s the country was able to start developing new prototypes of bacterial biological weapons based on multi-resistant strains, meaning that all existing treatments available in the West wouldn't be possible to apply because these agents would overcome antibiotic treatments.
We cannot ignore this situation. I'm 100% sure that some biological weapons and their killing capability are more effective than some forms of nuclear weapons. Thank you.
Chris Bullock: Dr Ken Alibek.
Up to this point the speakers had concentrated on the possibility of germ warfare between nations. But it's a terrorist strike they're more worried about.
The Japanese cult, Aum Shinrikyo proved the point four years ago in Tokyo. Aum used a chemical weapon, sarin gas, in the Tokyo subway, but the group had tried to use biological weapons on a number of occasions, without success.
Kyle Olson is Special Projects Manager with Research Planning Inc., and he's an authority on Aum Shinrikyo.
Kyle Olson: Not only did the cult experiment with biological weapons but on a number of occasions they released biological weapons. The first experiment with this in April 1990 while most of the cult members were on a retreat at an island near Okinawa. One team was left behind expressly for the purposes of experimentally releasing botulin toxin from a car around the Japanese Parliament building, around the Diet. There were no reports of any casualties, any injuries associated with that release.
Three years later, having worked towards trying to perfect their technology, working out of a new laboratory now, the cult attempted once again to release botulin toxin. They had modified a truck or a car rather, as a spray vehicle, and this time they were intending to release their botulin toxin to coincide with the wedding of the Crown Prince. And to that end they drove around the Imperial Palace grounds as well as government buildings in Tokyo. At that time they also visited the US Naval base outside of Tokyo and attempted to release botulin toxin in that area as well. However, once again there were no health effects associated with that release, at least none that were reported.
In late June of '93, that same month, disappointed perhaps over the inability of their botulin toxin to effect any lasting effects, the cult attempted to release anthrax spores, or did release anthrax spores, from their office building laboratory in Tokyo itself. Now at the time there were reports of foul smells, brown steam spots on cars and the sidewalk, some pet deaths, plant deaths and what-have-you, but again, no reports of any human casualties associated with that release.
Chris Bullock: Then in 1994, in the small city of Matsumoto, north of Tokyo, Aum unleashed its chemical weapon, sarin gas.
Kyle Olson: On a warm June evening, a group of cult members drove a truck similar to one illustrated in this picture into the city on a mission, a very explosive mission, a mission to kill three judges who were about to hand down a ruling in a land dispute, which it was believed by the cult, they were going to lose. The decision had been made that they could not afford to lose that ruling, they had to prevent it from being issued. Moreover it provided an opportunity to field test a weapon that the cult had been experimenting with for some time. In fact a weapon which they had actually tested on animals on a station in Western Australia in 1993.
The device was designed around the notion of a truck which would carry a container of sarin, would be pre-heated, raised to a vapour point and released as a cloud, an aerosol, literally a poison gas. Now the original plan was to attack the judges at their offices in downtown Matsumoto, however the cult miscalculated, in fact the leader of the group overslept that day. They got on the road late, they got to the target city late, and they had to improvise, and unfortunately Aum Shinrikyo had something of a genius for improvisation. They determined that the three judges were all living in the same dormitory in a residential neighbourhood. They waited until dark, drove their truck into a parking lot adjacent to the development, and released a cloud of sarin gas. The cloud very quickly swept up, taken by the winds essentially in what was a courtyard, moved up into the open windows of various apartments and dormitories throughout the area, and in a very short time, seven people were dead and more than 500 people were taken to hospitals in this very quiet town.
Now the event stands out historically for several reasons: first of all, this was the first use of nerve agent in a terrorist setting; it was a use not by a state but by a private group of individuals against civilians; and of particular note was that by and large the rest of the world paid absolutely no attention. This was a major story in Japan and in a few other pacific nations; it captured no attention in Western Europe nor in the United States. As a result, when the cult drove away, they were effectively invisible, and by the way, no ruling has ever been handed down in that land dispute.
Chris Bullock: Nine months later, Aum used sarin again., this time in the Tokyo subway, killing a dozen people and making 3-and-a-half-thousand people ill. Kyle Olson says the lessons from Aum Shinrikyo's actions are clear.
Kyle Olson: First of all the Tokyo subway attack, the objective of the attack, was not to kill hundreds or thousands of random strangers in the Tokyo subway. It had a very specific purpose: the cult had learned that the police in Tokyo had been trained the week before in chemical protective gear and tactics by the military, in anticipation of raids against cult facilities that were set to begin on Monday, March 20th, 1995. The reason the cult decided to attack the Tokyo subway on Monday March 20th, was to kill as many policemen on their way to work as possible. You see all of those trains converged at Kasumigaseki station, which serves the headquarters of the Japanese police agency.
You see, Aum's actions I would argue, were perfectly logical. We've heard them characterised as an insane cult, an end-of-the-world cult, a group of mad scientists in Buddhist monk clothing. Well actually I would argue that Aum's actions were perfectly logical. They had established their own value system. They essentially set themselves up as a society in conflict with larger society. A self-legitimised group that rejected and ultimately was going to have to confront that society at some level. Given that they didn't have enough men, enough guns, enough bullets to fight society and fight the police, let alone the military, they had to go with an asymmetric option, they had to find a trump card, and to this end it made perfect sense to think about weapons of mass destruction. Once they knew the police were about to attack, a pre-emptive strike was by their thinking, forced upon them. They could not afford to have their plans derailed.
Chris Bullock: Following Kyle Olson, the audience, predominantly scientists, had their chance to ask some questions. At the front was a panel made up of the speakers you've heard so far.
DA Henderson: Question in the centre.
Man: Just for all the people of the panel: are we led to believe that countries like the UK and United States do not have any BW program now? Is that what you're telling us?
DA Henderson: Chris?
Christopher Davis: There's absolutely no question. The United States has not had a program since 1969 and the United Kingdom since the early, mid-'50s.
DA Henderson: A question to the side.
Man: The presentation concerning the Soviet Union from Dr Davis left me questioning how it was possible to interpret in the way you did, the extent of what you presented as their biological weapons research activities. And I say that because for example in my own laboratory at Reading University over the last 15, 20 years, we have been engaged in experiments which, to put a certain shine on it, you could describe as genetic manipulation of serious pathogenic viruses, including polio viruses. Now it strikes me that should a Soviet Union military inspector have come along to my university over that period, he could have drawn all sorts of conclusions about the BW capability that we were working on. Of course we were doing no such thing, we were actually trying to understand how vaccines work. I simply ask how do you make that interpretation, and certainly there was nothing on the slide that you presented which scared me at all.
Christopher Davis: When we came to our conclusions it was on many different strands of evidence and not simply on going to visit two or three or four places and listening to what had to be said. And what was being said to us was designed to deceive us into thinking exactly what you have just said. In other words, portraying a program in another light. And after all, in the end, two senior people from the program came and told us exactly what was going on and one of them is sitting next to me. So it turns out that we were right.
Ken Alibek: When we're talking about biological weapons and technology used for developing biological weapons, what we need to remember is about 80% or 90% of research and development work in this area can be used, let me say, for developing vaccines, for developing legitimate products, or it could be used for developing biological weapons. But for us, for people who are working in this area, there are some signs when we can say no, it's not a legitimate facility. Too many signs, too many signatures. I'm talking about delivery systems, I'm talking about specific formulations, I'm talking about specific testing including explosive chambers and such and such.
DA Henderson: Let me hold this up for now. We're going to have time for discussion at the end, but I'm afraid I see a lot of people suffering from caffeine deprivation at this moment, and so let us take a break at this point and come back in roughly 20 minutes.
Chris Bullock: This is Background Briefing and you're listening to an international forum on biological terrorism. In the first half the speakers dealt with the weapons and who has them. The second half focus was on what would happen if the weapons grade germs were released, and how we might be protected.
Take smallpox for example. Professor Henderson explained the only guidance we have on what to expect from a smallpox release comes from the experience of two natural outbreaks, one in Germany in 1970, which led to a total of 20 people being infected, and a far worse outbreak in Yugoslavia in 1972.
DA Henderson: When a pilgrim returned to the famous Kosovo province, he was seen by a number of different friends on return. These friends came from a number of different areas and about two weeks later, a group of cases occurred, eleven cases.
Yugoslavia had seen no smallpox since 1927, so this was 1972, 45 years since they'd had any smallpox. Yugoslavia, like most of Europe, was regularly vaccinating the population, so it was a moderately well vaccinated population. The physicians however, had had no experience in diagnosing smallpox and all of the eleven cases in the first generation were missed. One of the cases was a haemorrhagic case. Haemorrhagic smallpox is very uniformly fatal, within usually five to seven days. The individual normally puts out a great deal of virus, but the diagnosis is often missed. In this case it was a 30-year-old schoolteacher who came down with this disease, was given penicillin; his condition deteriorated, he was moved subsequently to another hospital, a district hospital, finally to the capital city, his blood pressure began to fall, he was evacuated to an intensive care unit, and at the intensive care unit he died. Only two days after his death was it recognised that smallpox was present in Yugoslavia.
That person, that one schoolteacher, infected some 35 others in hospital throughout his stay, including a number of physicians and nurses. And then by the time it was discovered, there were some 150 cases already present in Yugoslavia. The problem that the Yugoslav government was then faced with, as this was reported to other countries, they closed their borders, literally closed their borders - this would be Austria, Italy, Greece - and simply stopped all transport across the border, be it boat or train or plane, Yugoslavia was isolated.
They saw no option but to go ahead and vaccinate the entire country, which they did over a period of some 10 to 12 days, they vaccinated some 19-million people. They were faced with a number of contacts of cases; they wanted to isolate them, so that if they did come down with smallpox they would already be isolated and would not continue to spread the disease. And so they took over whole hotels, apartment blocks, and cordoned them off with barbed wire and police, and admitted the people in to this area for a two-week stay, and no-one left those once they were quarantined. And they did this for some 10,000 people.
But it had a remarkable effect, as you can see, and rapidly the outbreak died off. But I would note to you that this was a small outbreak, this was not a major problem, this was a small outbreak.
Chris Bullock: That was in 1972, the same year that mass smallpox vaccinations finished in most parts of the world because the virus was thought to be essentially eradicated.
Now almost 30 years later, many national borders are almost a thing of the past. Globalisation has dramatically increased international traffic and therefore, international disease infection routes. It would be virtually impossible to stop a terrorist release in New York, for example. And if somebody decided to release anthrax in New York City, the person in charge of the emergency response would be Gerry Hauer.
Gerry Hauer: Well first, in order to recognise and respond to biological terrorism, you have to know that something has occurred, because again, you're not going to have people dropping in the street like we saw as Kyle showed us in the Aum Shinrikyo incident, the impact of the majority of these biological agents would be anywhere from two days to 10-12 days later. So we've got to understand that we've had an incident. One of the keys to the health care surveillance in the city is getting our health care providers engaged in recognising diseases that most of them have not seen. And over the last 18 months, we have trained 4,000 health care professionals. And the ones we're trying to get to are the emergency room docs, family practitioners, nurse practitioners, people that see the patients first. There's 40,000 physicians in New York City, and we want to get to the 10,000 or 12,000 that see the patient first, and sensitise them to things they've probably only seen in textbooks. It's a four-hour course, it's not extensive, doesn't take a lot of time out of their day, but it allows them to think through the things that they might ordinarily not think about.
The other thing that we're trying to do, is develop a link between the medical community and the public health community. Because historically, in cities like New York, there are reported diseases, most of them are sexually transmitted diseases, and they fill out a card, they submit it to the Health Department and they forget about it. What we're trying to get the medical community to do is understand if they start to see patterns of these diseases, they need to report them to the Health Department within hours, not within days. We want them calling our Department of Health.
Now for most practitioners, they've never done it, and again it requires education. Once we recognise that we've had some kind of a clandestine release, it's very important that we have a program in place and we have developed a program, and in point of fact we'll be testing the program this September, where we do a major drill in the city to make sure the concepts we've developed are sound.
The Israelis, through their program, bring medication to people, utilising the home front command. We looked at that and we felt that it was a difficult program to do in New York City, so we developed a concept that we call Points of Distribution. And you've got to realise that for a clandestine release of an agent like anthrax, we'll have about 48 hours to get that medication out before we'll start seeing the number of people that die from anthrax rise fairly significantly. As most of you know, anthrax has a kind of bi-phasic course. During the first course of the disease, you present with something that looks like the flu, you probably would show up at the emergency room, get some meds for your nose, something for the fever, you go home and you start feeling a little better. You develop what's called an anthrax honeymoon, you're feeling a little better and then you come back and become symptomatic again and at that point in time, there really is no treatment.
So our goal is to try and set up the infrastructure to deliver drugs to the people within 12 hours and then to get the medication distributed to people in about 36 hours.
Chris Bullock: Gerry Hauer says one of the big problems any city officials will have to deal with is fear and panic, and then there are the bodies.
Gerry Hauer: We do not know whether at this point in time for an agent like anthrax, whether we could allow burial or whether these bodies would be cremated. If in fact they had to be cremated, we're not quite sure where we could accomplish the number of cremations that would need be.
Chris Bullock: So can you ever really be ready for something like this? Is Australia ready? Does the Olympics make Australia a target?
Commander Andy Robertson is a medical adviser to the Australian Defence Force and a former United Nations weapons inspector. He gave few details of Australia's readiness for a biological attack, as you might expect. But he did say Australia has been working hard on finding ways to detect deadly biological agents in the atmosphere.
Andy Robertson: One of the key areas that hasn't really been touched on today is the use of bio-detection. The Australian Defence Forces has actually made good progress in this area. Our defence science and technology organisation has been working in the bio defence area since 1995, helping to develop the AMBRI bio detector which is a very fast detector which will detect up to four agents at a time.
Stockpiling of vaccines and antibiotics are obviously key factors in all of this. Better protective equipment and increased defence research. And certainly from the military point of view, our defence science technology organisation has been developing a lightweight protection suit which is going to be very good in the Australian summer.
Well this is the area we hopefully will never get to. This is the, 'how do we mitigate the effects if the disaster actually occurs?' Obviously this is a key role as well and we need disaster plans, protocols and training. Many will be aware that $23-million was dedicated in the last budget to actually improve this capability, and we now have considerable response capability or improvements in our response capability, in our protection and detection systems.
New South Wales Health has now trained over 150 staff including 50 health and ambulance officers as train the trainers, and the further training in this area will actually occur in September and will continue throughout 2000. And all other States are actually looking at both their contingency planning and their training plans.
Australia is actually rapidly developing its emergency response capability, and by the 2000 Olympics, should be at world's best practice.
Chris Bullock: They're soothing words, but it's not clear what world's best practice really means in terms of germ warfare defence.
There is a lot of work going on around the world on germ detection and prevention. The final speaker was Dr Stephen Morse, a senior scientist with the United States' Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, known as DARPA.
Stephen Morse: We have a couple of projects that involve external protection, including a thermo-catalytic device, basically a device that cleans the air going through a mask or whatever that you can breathe through more easily, basically by heating it up very rapidly to destroy both chemical and bio-agents, and then cooling it very rapidly with minimal power.
We also have a project involving a lighter weight material, basically polymer artificial skins, to replace the current suits, which are cumbersome (you see them pictured here) and of course very uncomfortable. The idea here is something with more give, that may also be able to inactivate the agent that lands on it, by incorporating various sorts of enzymes, ultraviolet, or chemical inactivation components.
We also look for new diagnostic technologies. I'll give you a few examples in a moment, as well as new markers of disease. One example of that is being able to detect nitric oxide. Nitric oxide is made by many cells, including white blood cells, in response to infection. It's a gas, it may be one of the first host responses, and in fact you can detect it in the gas in breath for example, very easily, and one project we've been supporting for a couple of years, has been developing small prototype nitric oxide sensors, and testing them in clinical settings to determine whether this could be a very useful first and real time detection, an indication of something non-specific, but nevertheless something you should know about. Somebody is sick and they need attention.
This gives you just a flavour of where I think, if we think strategically, we can develop better research and development capabilities for dealing with these serious threats and doing it in a broad way that allows us both to cover the known and the unknown. And I thank you very much for your time and attention.
Chris Bullock: Dr Stephen Morse.
Finally, the speakers faced questions from their peers in the audience.
Man: We've heard a lot so far about organisms which might be conveyed by air, but what are we doing to protect the water supply? It seems to me if I wanted to control the city, I'd control the water supply, and either I can turn it off and I've got complete control of everybody; I can put methylene blue in to prove that I've got complete control of everybody, or can put cryptospiridium in.
DA Henderson: Gerry, how do you consider the problem of water supplies vis-a-vis New York?
Gerry Hauer: We use about 1.5-billion gallons of water a day. And there are certain critical points that we protect quite heavily, because they are vulnerable locations. We are not however that concerned about the reservoirs: because of sheer volume, the amount of agent that would be needed would be enormous because of the dilutional effect to contaminate the supply upstream. We are quite concerned however, about people getting pathogens or chemicals introduced into the system. Within the city, our water system is at a certain pressure, and if you understood what the pressures were at various points, you could clearly introduce something into the water system.
Personally I think it's virtually impossible to completely protect a water system once you get downstream.
Chris Bullock: Several people in the audience felt that not enough attention had been given to the use of plant and animal pathogens as weapons. Hamish Killip was the first to respond to this question.
Hamish Killip: In the Iraqi program, one of the first things they looked at were plant pathogens, and they were using it simply as an economic weapon. And some work was done to affect wheat.
Ken Alibek: Maybe I would add something. In the Soviet Union there was the Minister for Agriculture and a main directorate was involved in developing and manufacturing biological weapons to affect livestock and crops; wheat, rice corn and some other crops.
Stephen Morse: There are several natural outbreaks that might be relevant examples there. You know, certainly foot and mouth disease in Taiwan a couple of years ago, which had a devastating effect on the pigs. It was introduced apparently through an infected pig, one or several, and resulted in Taiwan's essentially slaughtering the entire pig population. So it's clear that from natural examples, that's an indication at least of what nature has provided and where we might look for answers.
Kyle Olson: In Taiwan, and I was in Taiwan at the time, there was a very wide-held assumption, presumption, belief, on the part of the population, that in fact the disease had been introduced by the mainland Chinese. And it was virtually impossible to disprove.
DA Henderson: In that question there's another dimension to the whole problem, and I think this has only begun to be really dealt with, because there are some very serious animal pathogens which could be introduced fairly simply, and similarly some crop pathogens which could pose real problems. I think that's a whole new book that's out there, and I think we're just beginning to really talk about this and explore it.
Chris Bullock: Another question from the floor, directed to Gerry Hauer from New York: Are germ detectors effective? Wouldn't it be foolish to rely on them to warn you?
Gerry Hauer: Yes, I totally agree with you. We've been approached about putting in bio detectors, and first of all there are no bio detectors that I feel comfortable with pre-positioning in the city at this point, because they're not specific enough and they're not sensitive enough. We have to accept the fact that if we have a clandestine release in a city like New York or Washington, there are going to be fatalities. The whole goal though, from the time of release to the time of diagnosis, is to shorten that time frame. We are testing some of this in September, we have a massive drill to try and understand how quickly we can ramp up the logistical infrastructure, because we've only made assumptions. No other city in the country has ever tested this. But there is an assumption with one of these releases that there are going to be deaths, there is no question about it.
Kyle Olson: When we start talking about biological terrorism, you have to begin grappling with the notion of acceptable losses and minimising casualties. And that is a transforming state of mind: you don't like to think that you're going to lose anyone. Firemen run into buildings to save lives because they think they can save everybody. Well they can't, and believe me, the fire is burning very brightly when we start talking biological terrorism.
Gerry Hauer: Those first people that are symptomatic are going to die, there's no question about it. We are not going to save those people early on.
DA Henderson: One more question.
Man: With a great deal of trepidation I'd like to be highly controversial. I just wonder if there isn't an element in all of this - I'm not questioning anybody's motive, least of all Dr Henderson - but this could be seen as scare mongering on a massive scale. This is putting ideas into people's heads.
DA Henderson: You've raised the question about are we perhaps encouraging people to undertake various things by talking about it. I would say myself, I was concerned about this for some period of time. But I think the fact is there are so many scenarios out there now, and on the Internet, more ways to do more things than one can possibly imagine, that I think the problem is we need a broad national consensus to move ahead. And how do you do this, let us say, in secret? You can't. I think there's got to be an education of the public, and a lot of colleagues, so that when we address this there's a responsiveness to it. And I think this is the only way we can get from where we are, without very much, to moving ahead to eventually getting a moral consensus that this is just not on and that we eventually mitigate significantly the chance of a bio terrorist release.
Chris Bullock: You've been listening to a symposium on bio terrorism, hosted by the International Union of Microbiological Societies. Background Briefing's Co-ordinating Producer is Linda McGinness; Technical Production: Tom Hall; the Executive Producer is Kirsten Garrett; and I'm Chris Bullock.
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