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Bioterrorism threatens

By Peter Curson - posted Thursday, 5 April 2018


Today the threat of bioterrorism has never been so real. The recent bioterrorist event in the UK casts an ominous shadow over the world.

Bioterrorism is the deliberate use of viruses, bacteria, toxins and other agents to produce death, disease and widespread fear in human populations. Such agents are in many ways the perfect weapons to spread fear and terror. They can be easily spread through air, water, food or by simply coming into contact with an infected surface. They are very difficult to detect and may not cause illness or death for many hours or days after exposure. With the exception of smallpox these agents all occur naturally in our biophysical environment – in water, air, soil and animals.

Toxins such as Novichok, the one most probably used in the recent UK event, have been labelled as the most dangerous. They are very easily spread, remain often totally invisible and create panic and fear among the general public. The chemical composition of Novichok was revealed by a Russian scientist living in the USA in 2008 but has never been confirmed or made public.

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For some time anthrax was considered one of the bio-weapons of greatest concern as was smallpox before it. Now our attention has been drawn to the use of vaporised nerve agents such a Novichok which is part of a collection of nerve agents developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s possibly to elude international restrictions on chemical weapons. Now it appears that toxins such as Novichok rate as the most lethal and most feared. Possibly one gram of aerosol toxin could kill more than one million people.

Biological warfare has a long history. As early as 600BC the Assyrians poisoned their enemies wells with a virulent fungi. In 1763 the British used smallpox as a weapon against native Americans. Germany also developed a biological warfare program during World War 1.

Biological warfare reached a peak in Manchuria and China between 1931 and 1943 when the occupying Japanese used biological weapons against the local population, among other things infecting prisoners with a variety of agents including plague, anthrax and cholera as well as dropping ceramic bombs full of plague infected fleas on villages and towns. There is also evidence that chemicals were used by the Bolivians in the Chaco War against Paraguay.

After the Gulf War, Iraq was found to have a biological weapons program. More recently Isis has been accused of using chemical weapons in Mosul and was rumoured to be considering launching a series of attacks using plague.

Over the last 20 or so years the threat of bioterrorism has markedly increased. World attention to the use of biological weapons emerged in 2001 when letters containing powdered anthrax were sent via the US Postal Service. This attack resulted in 22 infected and five deaths and spread fear across America.

The threat of bioterrorism has heightened in recent years. The anthrax attacks in the US, the Sarin nerve agent incident in Japan, the ricin incident in Britain, plus the use of chemical weapons in Syria and parts of the Middle East all cast an ominous shadow as does the most recent incident in London. We have now been forced to accept that the use of such weapons is no longer in the realms of fantasy.

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Bioterror agents have a number of characteristics that make them attractive weapons. These include their toxicity, the difficulty in detecting them, the ease and cheapness of their production, the ease and relative simplicity of their dissemination and the time lag between release and their effects. They also reduce the chance that the perpetrator will be seen or discovered and create considerable fear and panic among local populations. The Novichok incident in London illustrates all this only too well.

The possibility of a biological attack today is difficult for anyone to imagine. It makes everyday objects potentially fatal – doorhandles, clothing, newspapers and magazines, suitcases, kitchen and dining utensils, taps and human breath.

It is a worrying future. Although bio-weapons have been around for centuries, modern technology has produced new and deadly forms against which we have little defence.

While the likelihood of a bioterrorist incident in Australia or New Zealand may seem remote particularly in the context of emerging infectious diseases and the threat of another pandemic, the growing number of "white powder" incidents around the world suggests that we should take such things very seriously.

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About the Author

Peter Curson is Emeritus Professor of Population and Health in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Macquarie University.

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