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Issues in Bioterrorism


Terrorism has changed over the past four decades. Over the years, terrorism has become bloodier in terms of the victims involved and the acts that are committed. The magnitude is increasing every decade. By 1990s, the attacks had become more frequent causing thousands of fatalities. A report from Global terrorism database (GTD) indicates that from the year 2000, terrorism activities have been on the rise. This political violence is designed to instill fear and terror through violent victimization and destruction of noncombatant target is more concentrated in Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria and they contributed to 78% of the lives lost, especially in the year 2014. However, terrorism is spreading to other countries with the number increasing every day. Statistics have shown that the state committed political violence and conflicts are the two major factors that contribute to terrorist activities. Research shows that over the past 25 years, 88% of terror attacks occur in countries that are involved in violent conflicts and 92% occurs in countries where political violence is widespread. A combination of other factors such as unemployment among youths, drug crimes, belief in democracy and other socio-economic factors are likely to increase the terror attacks expected. The economic cost of terrorism is high. According to GTD, a 61% rise in the cost has been observed over the past 15years with an estimated cost of US $52.9 billion by 2014. The harm caused by terror attacks is huge and terrorism is an issue of major concern not only in the United States, but in the world as a whole (Morgan 118).

Different type of terror attacks has been successfully used to cause threats to the world population.  The commonly used weapons during this terror attacks include chemical weapons, nuclear weapons or biological weapons. The choice of the weapon to use depends on numbers of factors and especially the cost of production and the target. However, for massive destruction, biological weapons are cheap on the basis of production.  In a ratio of conventional: nuclear: chemical: biological weapons, per square kilometer of civilian destruction only one dollar worth biological weapon would be used compared to $2,000 for conventional weapons, $800 for nuclear weapon and $600 for chemical weapons. No wonder for a long time biological weapons have been referred to as a poor man’s atom bomb. Apart from cost, use of biological pathogens and toxin could have gained popularity because initially people felt a sense of security and that this bioweapon production is difficult and moral restraints would limit their use, but recently a number of events have focused on the use of these biological weapons to cause threat against the military, civilian population and even in agriculture to cause illnesses and great economic losses. This threat has been of major concern in the United States as well as internationally (Jernigan 933).

The potential of developing a biological weapon has grown considerably in the recent years and not only in their toxicity but also in the effect diversity. With the rapid advances in genetic engineering, terrorists have had a platform to turn small biological organisms into weapons. In terms of diversity, biological weapons are estimated to cause more harm than the nuclear and the chemical weapons that the national governments are concerned with. Chemical weapons, mainly cause regional security problems rather than a problem of global security and slow the speed of operation. The effects of the use of the biological weapons are of a high degree since they are unpredictable due to the involvement of complex and variable physiological, epidemiological, ecological and other factors.  Although these biological weapons need employment of advanced delivery systems, isolated and sabotage attacks like the Amerithrax, may only need a simple delivery and could be very destructive in certain circumstances.

A number of bacteria’s and viruses has been considered chief and more virulent and hence have been utilized more as weapons. This include anthrax a bacteria that can cause death within 24hours if it reaches the lungs, brucella undulant fever that causes 5% of death of untreated cases, tick-borne encephalomyelitis and mosquito born equine encephalitis which is viral and can cripple the nervous system of the survivors since it lacks an effective treatment yet, pneumonic plagues, psittacosis which causes 40%  death cases, rocky mountain spotted fever which kills in 3 days, tularemia causes 5-8% death of the untreated cases, typhoid and cholera bacteria’s as well as smallpox virus, one of the most deadliest epidemic viruses known. It has been proven that a teaspoon of anthrax can do more harm than tons of nerve gas of which just a drop absorbed through the skin can kill. Our main focus in this essay will be based on the Amerithrax that occurred in the US in the year 2001. The use of bioweapons against the United States could have been probably to overwhelm the military superiority of the United States and other nuclear powers.

The attacker identity

Biological weapons, unlike chemical or nuclear attacks, could go undetected for hours or even days depending on the agent used. This is possible especially when the signs are not immediate as with the Amerithrax attack. While trying to link back to the cause and the source of such weapons, there are so many uncertainties involved. The scientists in the laboratory will try and identify the exact agent; the epidemiologists will trace the paths of infection back towards the vector and the point of origin. However, identifying the sole terrorist is complex. This is because biological attacks are more covert and the effects are not as immediate as with chemical or nuclear weapons. The biological attacker may already have left the scene unrecognized. The difficulty in identifying the attacker too could be also perpetuated by the fact that terrorists can cross national frontiers to carry out attacks abroad.

There are other attackers that want to be recognized like. For instance, the Palestinians encouraged by the Algerian FLN’s (Front de Libe ´ration Nationale) in mainland France terrorist campaign adopted this approach as the first ones and the others followed soon. The reason being to gain international recognition or the distance target might not be as well guarded as targets from home. Terrorists have used bio weapons to attack foreign targets: embassies, and local offices and employees of multinational corporations, journalists and important people to the government whose activities in a country are felt in a design to make a country participate in local conflicts. Assassinations and abductions of diplomats have also been carried out by terrorists to draw attention, threaten and increased leverage over local governments.

A powerful country such as the United States has many enemies. The successful attack that managed to kill a total of five people undetected demonstrated clearly that this powerful nation is vulnerable to biological attacks. The fact that the attacker of the anthrax was not identified, could be a motivation to many other attackers who have ill motives towards a nation as powerful as the US (Jernigan 933).

Traditionally, threat-based analyses were conducted to try and assess the enemies’ intentions, but as of now the vulnerability-based analysis targets a weakness in the terrorist and estimates the worst case model (Bioterrorism Preparedness Act 188). It is evident that the investigation was sidelined toward one type of target and when that target was eliminated himself, there was no basis of looking for evidence to vindicate other potential attackers. Combating bioterrorism would not dwell mostly on vindicating the attacker, but on the country is ready and prepared for such attacks. Early detection and response to such attacks are very crucial. With the increase in the number of containment facilities, more scientists are needed to handle select agents and the number of dangerous individuals who can be perpetrators of attacks is also on the rise. A way to manipulate these viruses is widely available in the public domain and any scientist can use this information to clone virulent strains of any bacteria or virus. Most of the underpaid microbiologist could be very willing to produce designer diseases which even could remain silent in the host until activated by an external trigger. The first unrecognized case of cutaneous anthrax demonstrates the complexity in identifying cases from the bioterrorism covert agent release leave alone the attacker.

Countries with an advanced medical as well as a pharmaceutical history have the capacity to produce massive bioweapons. It’s also very easy to deliver the biological weapon in that anything from a piece of paper to a fruit can serve that purpose of delivery.  Only very few particles are required to initiate an infection which could result in an epidemic. Like for instance, an anthrax seed culture takes approximately 48hours to be grown and the techniques required are much lower than the nuclear weapon. Anthrax was the most suitable agent for such attacks since it’s very easy to handle and not very communicable therefore it would rarely spread beyond the target. A surveillance based in the hospital involving 10.5 million people that was carried out in metropolitan regions in the vicinity of the postal facilities showed that no additional cases of anthrax supporting the fact that the bacteria is not very communicable. Anthrax can remain viable for a period of 100years if kept out of sunlight and dry.

The fact that a vaccine exists that can be used safely by the attacker make it more suitable to an otherwise unprepared target. Carcasses of organism identified to have died because of anthrax could harbor these bacteria very well. A terrorist who has already been vaccinated against the bacteria can access it from such carcasses and used it as a weapon against their enemies. A research laboratory might not be necessary for attackers. There is an increase in homemade agents and reports of arsenals of the military bioweapons increases the possibility that the biological attackers might have access to even more dangerous agents engineered for massive destruction without the need of a research laboratory like the FBI thought. There have been outbreaks of anthrax inhalation reported in goat hair processing plants in New York Hampshire (Taylor, Eric, and John 18).  Such cases can occur which are linked to secondary contamination from items infected.

Bio detection Systems

            Biological weapon efficiency and efficacy relies mainly on its dispersion, upon the climatic conditions, limiting its lethality and exposure for mass destruction. Dealing with bioweapons also depends hugely on their detection. Within days after discovering that anthrax has been found in the mailing system, a biohazard detection system was commissioned that could scan the presence of the anthrax spores in mails. This detection method was designed exclusively for postal services. This BDS uses a DNA match to detect the presence of Bacillus anthracis in the mail. The annual expenses associated with the devices use and installation was between $75 million to $100 million which was completed in 2006. But since the installation of these BDS at all the 321 postal plants, there have been no any positive alerts for anthrax. This detection system is very important to detect the presence of the bacteria. The incorporation of gamma rays also sound like a good idea, but the gamma rays are dangerous to employees that work at the postal plants and could even increase expenses of the nation which could otherwise be directed to other developmental projects. Investing more in vaccine development and other healthcare facilities to boost the health care system could make people feel more taken care of than just concentrating more on one route of administration the mail system. This could be viewed as one of the unnecessary projects that have utilized a lot of funds to come up with in that that the attacker might not even use the mail system to bring a terror attack in another attack. But this is a way of preparedness and in case the attacker uses the same mode of administration of the attack, the country will be secure since it will be detected early enough and the victims could be minimal (Taylor, Eric, and John 18).

Misdiagnosis and nation response

The signs and symptoms of anthrax are similar to other illnesses. Nausea, severe abdominal pain ,reduced appetite, pyrexia, swollen neck,, bloody diarrhea, blisters, sore throat, fever, which are the signs of anthrax are also signs and symptoms of other illnesses. The fact that as a nation they were not prepared for any attack and the fact that the anthrax is very rare in American countries, it was very improbable that healthcare practitioner could even think of testing anthrax with these symptoms. This is a prove of unpreparedness of the nation to such attacks. It’s very possible that a nation could be under attack and take days or even years to detect that it is under attack. By the time the identification is done the damage might be widespread to a point that control could even next to impossible. Since then, a total of $60 billion was invested by the US government on biodefense. A huge portion of these dollars has gone to biodefense research under the auspices of the national institute of allergy and infectious disease (NIAID). Among the developments is the detection of the bacteria. To detect an organism normally required to extract it, culture it and then pick colonies and examine them. A chemical test could also have been carried out that could take about 24-48hrs. For now, with a newly identified virus, the bioluminescent reporter phage reduces the time to five hours. This method is very sensitive and can detect very low levels of anthrax bacteria (Lennane 68).

Although questions have been posed whether the spending has been worth it, It is true to say yes although a number of gaps are yet to be filled. A number of dollars have been spent in ill-chosen projects; we can say that the United States is not as it was when it first experienced the attack. At the time the United States was attacked, there was no detection system was in place to screen the letters.

Prophylactic medication and vaccines use

Antibiotics have been used in people who have been exposed to anthrax symptoms. Ciprofloxacin and doxycycline have been used as prophylactic antibiotics against anthrax disease. The anthrax spore can take 1-6 days to be activated but some take even more than 60days to be activated in order to release the toxin. Therefore, people exposed to this bacteria need to take the antibiotics for 60days to protect their bodies when the spores get activated.  This is not as effective, especially with drug resistance issues; the bacteria might be resistant to these antibiotics with time. The anthrax vaccine is available and has been licensed since 1970. The anthrax vaccine adsorbed (AVA) protects against cutaneous and inhalation vaccine. The vaccine has not been allowed for use by the general public. But based on the side effects associated with the vaccines where other people actually die after being vaccinated, this vaccine is highly recommended only to individuals whose nature of their work exposes them to high risk of attacks.  A survey carried out between 1998-2000 observed that 85% of the troop that received the anthrax vaccine experienced side effects, in a ration far higher than what is manufacturer had claimed of 30%. A number of respondents had to leave military and others changed status because of these vaccinations (Lennane 68).

The Bio Thrax vaccine is the only vaccine approved by the FDA and is available for use by the general public. It has been shown to be safer and has proven 91% effective after two human vaccinations. Although the nation should not stop at that since vaccines offer a limited protection range since do not provide protection against genetically engineered agent which are engineered to counter those vaccines. It may cost the government huge investments to develop a patient-friendly vaccine, which might not even be of any help since if the bacteria is modified genetically, it might not offer the protection needed. Furthermore, anthrax is very rare in the United States. Farming areas such as central and  south America, eastern and western Europe and sub Saharan Africa  and central and southwestern Asia it is common. In my view, if more emphasis is put on early detection, protection and decontamination process the rest of the population would be safer by receiving immediate treatment. Treatment of victims would depend largely on the establishment and maintenance of good healthcare systems.

            More emphasis still remains on the development of more sensitive methods for detection of infected individuals and on immediate treatment. Like for instance, during the period if Gulf welfare, the US forces endured a lot of hardships due to a defective detection system. Immediate advances in biotechnology are required to develop quick and improved detectors. Identification of these biological weapons is very crucial since they multiply with time, unlike other weapons. Decontamination of a region is possible by use of chemicals, heat and UV rays like was done in the Gruinard Island in the UK. As much as the attacker might use a different organism the next time of the attack and if the same it might be genetically modified such that the vaccine might not counter it, efforts to generate a new better vaccine should not be ignored.

 A number of declaration and treaties have attempted to burn the use of biological warfare methods with the Geneva protocols since 1925 with no success. The biological and toxin weapon Convention (BTWC) (1975) banned the entire use of weapons for mass destruction (Lennane 18). It prohibited the acquisition and production of biological agents and toxins that do not have protective medical or other peaceful purposes or any weapon or means of delivery for such agents or toxins. But this did not work based on this attack in 2001.


            There is an increased risk of bioterrorism over the past few years, the historical development of microorganisms and the risk posed by various microorganisms as biological weapons should be re-evaluated. This is necessary especially with the progress that has been made in biochemistry and biotechnology and perhaps genetic engineering that holds the most dangerous potential. Bioterrorism and generally terrorism can completely be eradicated if the government could concentrate on preventing it more than curing it.  As the government concentrate on preventing this attacks, the health community and public should be made familiar with the epidemiology and the control measures to increase a reasoned response in case of an outbreak. However, a primary prevention strategy lies on creating a global norm that rejects the development of such weapons. Although treatment and detection of the disease (the secondary prevention) works, a combination of the two can bring out a far much better outcome globally.  


Works cited

Jernigan, John A., et al. “Bioterrorism-related inhalational anthrax: the first 10 cases reported in the United States.” Emerging infectious diseases 7.6 (2001): 933.

Bioterrorism Preparedness Act. “Public health security and bioterrorism preparedness and response act of 2002.” Public law 107.188 (2002): 188.

Morgan, Robin. The demon lover: The roots of terrorism. Open Road Media, 2014.

Taylor, Robert W., Eric J. Fritsch, and John Liederbach. Digital crime and digital terrorism. Prentice Hall Press, 2014.

Lennane, Richard. “Biological Weapons Convention.” Encyclopedia of Bioterrorism Defense (2011).