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The miniaturization of mass destruction: bioterrorism has been around a long time: the Romans used dead animals to foul their enemies' water, and the bodies of infected soldiers were catapulted into besieged towns in medieval times. Now, it's more sophisticated and potentially devastating, but some think the threat has been exaggerated. (Terrorism - Bioterrorism).

The anthrax attacks in the United States in the fall of 2001 placed a new focus on the threat of bioterrorism. Although highly disruptive, costly, and scary, the anthrax problem caused only a handful of deaths. It could produce a larger problem in experienced hands though; when inhaled, the substance can kill more than 90% of its victims if left untreated.

A 1999 Canadian Health Protection Branch report estimated that a release of the deadly anthrax bacteria "under optimal conditions would result in approximately 35,000 deaths in seven days" and cost the healthcare system $6.5 billion. But, scientists think anthrax is not the threat many people fear it to be: people need to inhale spores by the thousands to become very ill; it is not contagious; and, if it's caught early or if its release is suspected in a terror attack, treatment with antibiotics can head off any serious effects. What the anthrax scare did do was disrupt government operations, tie up emergency personnel, interrupt mail service, make workers less productive, and rendered the public fearful and distracted. If the primary purpose of terrorism is to create fear and panic, then even a small-scale chemical or biological attack can "be as paralyzing as any nerve gas and more infectious than any virus," as one report explained.

Other diseases that could be used as biological weapons include: plague; tularemia, a plague-like disease; and botulism, caused by a toxin from the common food-poisoning bacterium clostridium botulinum.

But, experts worry most about the release of smallpox, even though it's harder to obtain than anthrax. There are only two official stores of the smallpox virus; one in America and one in Russia. However, others are thought to hold illicit stocks. It was estimated in 2000 that as many as 10 countries may possess the virus, or are trying to acquire it. The disease was wiped out 20 years ago, so few people have immunity. Smallpox is highly contagious and lethal. It killed more than 300 million people worldwide in the 20th century, compared with 20 million who died from the great 1918 influenza pandemic. Routine vaccination against smallpox ended nearly 30 years ago, and the shot is only effective for about 10 years. More than half the world's population has never been vaccinated. The disease kills between a third and half of unvaccinated victims, and it's estimated that every infected person could pass it on to 10 to 50 others.

But, how likely is germ warfare to happen and be successful? Clearly, the minds that dreamt up the horror of 9/11 are not going to be held back by moral considerations in using weapons of mass destruction. So, the real questions are: can they get their hands on such weapons, and can they deliver them? It seems the answers are "yes" and "yes."

Many experts say it's just a matter of time before the unthinkable becomes real.

According to a new book by the Council on Foreign Relations in the U.S., "On the domestic level, every relevant element of state and federal government from police to public health authorities must now prepare for the use of biological weapons against citizens. Such planning and action is fundamentally defensive and rests on the assumption that biological warfare agents will continue to exist and will be used."

Biological weapons are small, potent, relatively cheap, and hard to detect.

According to one report, a state-of-the-art biological laboratory could be built and made operational with as little as $10,000 U.S. worth of off-the-shelf equipment and could be housed in a small room. As well, graduate university students in laboratories around the world know enough about recombinant DNA and cloning technology to design and mass-produce such weapons. Biological agents can mutate, reproduce, multiply, and spread over a large geographic area by wind, water, insect, animal, and human transmission. Also, advances in genetic engineering have made it possible to make infectious micro-organisms more powerful and resistant to antibiotics. So, advanced biological technologies have spread all over the world, and there are many highly trained, technical people working on their use and effects.

But, before we retreat into our bunkers and seal the entrance, one expert at the Centre for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore thinks the threat of bioterrorism has been "wildly exaggerated." According to an article in The Economist, Dr. Milton Leitenberg says a would-be bioterrorist must be able to identify and obtain the correct pathogenic strains; handle them correctly; grow them in an environment that encourages production of the desired characteristics; store them and scale up production properly; and "weaponize" or disperse them effectively. It's thought that all but the last step are easily accomplished, but Dr. Leitenberg thinks only the most sophisticated and well-funded terrorists could consistently produce high-quality toxins and distribute them effectively. Others say those who make biological weapons are actually at higher risk than their intended victims.

A Toronto doctor who specializes in infectious disease control says the best advice she heard to calm people worried about becoming victims of an anthrax attack was: Stop smoking, wear your seatbelt, and get a flu shot. These common threats are much more dangerous, she said.

Nevertheless, the federal government announced new measures in its battle against terrorism in October 2001. The measures include a $12 million bioterrorism protection package. The money will go to anti-anthrax drugs, quick-detection measures, and other procedures to guard Canadians' health in case of bioterrorism attack. Some of the money will also go to training medical professionals to diagnose infections such as anthrax. But, while the government was preparing to counter bioterrorism attacks, Health Minister Allan Rock also said, "... it is important to remember that the risks are remote, that Canadians should remain calm and that the government of Canada is taking all necessary precautions."


1. In an article on germ warfare in the Foreign Affairs book, How Did This Happen? Terrorism and the New War, author Richard Butler says the international community needs to agree that the manufacture, possession, or use of biological weapons are by their very nature crimes against humanity. He says that to do so would make it possible to take immediate action to remove the offending facilities or laboratories involved. In Foreign Affairs, Richard Belts calls for civil-defence programs: distributing masks, vaccination planning public education, and emergency-response programs. Discuss these approaches to stemming the development and use of biological weapons.

2. An American university professor, Loren Thompson, says, "Terrorism does not exist without media. And on a massive scale, these terrorists [responsible for the anthrax scare] are reconfiguring national culture and perceptions by their ability to manipulate the media. They are using fear as a `force multiplier' - that is the old idea that you leverage a little bit of military power into a lot of damage." Discuss how .you think the media should respond in such situations.


Center for the Study of Bioterrorism - http://

Health Canada

New Scientist http://www.newscientist. com/hottopics/bioterrorism/


A quarter tonne of a properly "weaponized" bacterial preparation, carefully dried and milled to the correct particle size, could wipe out the inhabitants of an entire city in a single strike.


After a Geneva conference in 1996, where 80 countries reviewed the 1972 international treaty on biological weapons, the Canadian federal government proposed a series of verification measures to protect materials used in drug and vaccine research that are also used in making biological weapons.


In March 1995, members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult placed containers of the nerve gas sarin in five Tokyo subway cars during the morning rush hour. About 6,000 people were exposed to the gas, which sent more than 3,000 to hospital emergency rooms. In the end, 12 people were killed by the gas and 54 more were seriously injured, but it was reported that most of the casualties resulted from the panic the attack caused. According to the Washington Post, the group has dispersed anthrax and botulinum toxin as well, but says its biowarfare program has been a total flop.

Aum Shinrikyo is a large, sophisticated, and well-financed operation staffed by highly trained people studying germ and chemical warfare. Despite all this, they weren't able to achieve their goal of killing thousands in the subway attack. Here's how The Economist describes their failure: "... [after spending] $30 million attempting to develop sarin-based weapons ... they could not produce the chemical in the purity required. Their delivery mechanism was no more sophisticated than carrying it on to the trains in person in plastic bags. And, their idea of a distribution system was to pierce those bags with umbrella tips to release the liquid, which would then evaporate."

However, if the sarin had been pure and the dispersal mechanism slightly more sophisticated, it's estimated that tens of thousands could have died.


In 1972, an international consortium created the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, which prohibited the development and stockpiling of biological materials for hostile purposes. It went into effect in 1975, when it was ratified by 140 nations. Non-ratifiers include Libya, Iran, Iraq, and North Korea.

Nearly two decades later, in 1993, a report on weapons of mass destruction by the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment emphasized that, for the most part, transforming Bacillus anthracis [anthrax] into a weapon is a low-tech procedure: it noted that on a clear, calm night, a light plane flying over Washington, D.C., carrying 100 kilos of anthrax spores and equipped with a crop sprayer, could deliver a fatal dose to as many as three million people. Here's a quote from the CIA's National Intelligence Council in December 2000: "Some terrorists or insurgents will attempt to use [weapons of mass destruction] against United States interests, against the United States itself, its forces or facilities overseas, or its allies."

Intelligence people believe that Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda group already has such weapons, and the World Health Organization has warned governments to be better prepared to deal with bioterror and/or nuclear attacks.


It has long been known that Iraq is a threat for biological warfare. Although the country signed the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention outlawing the manufacture and use of such weapons, a secret program to manufacture and deploy biological weapons began several years later. It's been reported that Iraq has developed a range of such agents, including anthrax, botulinum toxin, gas gangrene, aflatoxin, and ricin, and worked hard to find ways to weaponize and deliver them. It's also been suggested that the country's leader, Saddam Hussein has been interested in plague, smallpox, and other infectious agents. A 1995 CIA study named 16 other countries it suspected were researching and stockpiling germ warfare agents including: Iran, Libya, Syria, North Korea, Taiwan, Israel, Egypt, Vietnam, Laos, Cuba, Bulgaria, India, South Korea, South Africa, China, and Russia.
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Publication:Canada and the World Backgrounder
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Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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