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Biological Warfare

Know Your Enemy

20 years, 10 months ago

10211  0
Posted on Feb 02, 2003, 5 a.m. By Bill Freeman

Are bioweapons really a threat. Yes, says Debora MacKenzie, because they aren't hard to make Germs by Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg and William Broad, Simon & Schuster, $27/

Are bioweapons really a threat? Yes, says Debora MacKenzie, because they aren't hard to make

Germs by Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg and William Broad, Simon & Schuster, $27/£18.30, ISBN 0684871580

IT seemed pretty illogical at the time. On 11 September, a band of terrorists hijacked airplanes and crashed them deliberately into buildings in the US, killing thousands. A week later, Germs-a recent history of biological weapons-sold out across the US. The astonished publisher had to boost its print run from 15,000 to 100,000.

Why? If there was one thing the September atrocities showed us, it was that terrorists don't need fancy, high-tech weapons to kill. Certainly not germs, which are tricky to handle, and do not make sickeningly telegenic explosions. And yet germs were what the American public suddenly felt it needed to read up on.

They were, as it happened, wiser than they knew. Because now, with anthrax being sent through the post, there is a bioterrorist attack underway in the US and beyond.

Of course, humans have always, with reason, most feared poisons and disease. So the recent concern about terrorism has focused on poisons and disease: nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. There were charges, after 11 September, that this focus blinded people to the threat which eventually struck.

Perhaps. Yet this book makes the case forcefully-and before this month's anthrax cases-that, even when you look at all the terrorist's options, germs remain a threat. These three New York Times reporters whose bioweapons scoops I have long admired, conclude that germ weapons aren't as difficult to make as we have sometimes been led to believe.

For example, when it emerged that the terrorists behind the World Trade Center attack had shown an interest in crop-dusting aircraft, experts quickly told us that crop dusters posed no threat. They aren't designed for it. The bugs, especially a liquid slurry, would clog the nozzles or disperse harmlessly.

Oh? Read the book. Back in 1955, US scientists sprayed the tiny bacteria that cause Q fever over Utah-in a slurry, and from a jet, not a humble crop duster. Not only did this infect the human test subjects who volunteered for the trials rather than bear arms. It even infected soldiers on the roadblocks around the area.

Then there is anthrax. Sales of this book should leap again after the recent events, so far they have been small-scale. Experts have again assured us that terrorists would be unable to produce or distribute kilos of anthrax in a larger attack.

Really? We read that in a secret US government experiment last year, people with no special scientific expertise, and armed with $1.6 million, bought equipment on the open market, undetected by security agencies, and produced a kilogram of weapons-ready anthrax-lookalike bacteria. It was even milled to optimal particle size for infection-something experts have told me would be impossible for mere terrorists.

Scared yet? Wait till you read about the Soviets' genetically modified Legionella bacteria that induced auto-immunity to the myelin that surrounds nerves. The mice died rather horribly. Apparently the Soviets never mass-produced that one-like they did, say, plague or anthrax. The tale, from Iraqi inspections to Soviet defectors to West Nile virus, explains very clearly why the US became very worried about the biological threat during the 1990s. But why has Europe barely taken the threat seriously until now? It has some serious catching up to do. Send this book to a European politician.

Debora MacKenzie

SOURCE: New Scientist 27th October 2001

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