During the last fifteen years, discussion about biological terrorism has moved from a fictional field to non-fiction and official level. It seems that the whole of the civilized world agree on the conclusion that the reality of asymmetric wars, which non-state powers are rising, brings the potential danger from biological agents and their misuse to the forefront.
The biological warfare program has always been a political and security challenge for the state and international community, which tried to prevent and pre-empt it through many suggested and signed protocols including The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) of 1972. The BTWC prohibits the development, production and stockpiling of biological weapons which shows us that potential actors worldwide have been aware of the growing threat. States accepted the new rules but that didn’t mean that some gave them up totally, they kept working on a biological weapons program behind the scenes.
In the meantime, terrorism became the new global risk and personal, national and international security has been changed. Political violence, religious extremism and fatalism are put together under the flag of Islam and its abuse by those who believe only in existing in a world according to their rules. They are ready to do all they are capable of doing. They want to glorify life through death because they do not care about this life. These are people who could possibly produce and use biological weapons against the system they are fighting with.
The U.S. secret projects Bacchus and then Jefferson from 1999-2001 were started up to simulate bioterrorist threats and the consequences as well as the pre-conditions. It has shown the growing challenges, risks and threats of biological weapons being militarized in the future. Recent research studies lead by a working group of scientists from John Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies have made a serious consideration of all the potential biological agents that could be “ideal” for terrorist plans.
Not all microbes are so highly lethal and are easily produced in large quantities. The main characteristic of biological weapons is to be readily available and easy for production whilst efficient in causing fear, panic and death. Keeping that in mind, there are biological agents that could be activated in prospective conflicts and could endanger public health as well as biological security.
Anthrax and Smallpox are at the top of the biological weapons threat. Both of them are highly lethal and can cause massive civil disruption. They are stable enough for transmission and could be produced in large doses and their historical importance and military background make them attractive for biological terrorists. It should be noted that vaccines for the mentioned agents have limited effectiveness.
After them equally interesting are Plague and Tularemia and these bacterial agents can only devastate populations if there is a lack of the right medical treatment, but when panic rules, known and old become unknown and new. The botulism toxins are in fifth place but also with a high level of lethality.
Botulinum toxin is one of the most poisonous biological substances known to man; however, it is not so stable in the environment for longer and wider use. At the end of the list are viral Hemorrhagic fevers but that doesn’t mean they are less lethal or dangerous. They are indicated by multiplex RNA viruses which make them highly contagious, highly lethal and very effective in causing total damage to affected organisms.
The mitigating circumstance in this case is that VHF are geographically located, depending on where their first hosts are. The deadliest viruses from this group are Ebola, Marburg, Crimean Congo HF, Kyasanur Forest Virus, Dengue Fever and many other emerging infectious diseases, which existed as zoonotic before they crossed to humans. Viral Hemorrhagic fevers require some basic biotechnology knowledge for military use so terrorists will not use them easily.
Potential danger could be seen in making a human biological bomb. That is a terrorist or lonely fanatic who would infect themselves with a deadly virus and then during a period of incubation change locations with the purpose of infecting as many people as possible.
Microbes are scary enough for the human race when they are hidden in their hosts far away from civilization. Their mobilization at some future time would be a trigger for total chaos and loss of existing biological security but also imbalance of the ecosystem and new cracks in environmental issues.
Global society should think wisely about these threats and take all measures to prevent by ensuring the level of biosafety and increasing the general biosecurity. Microbes should be kept away from wars.
Sandra Maksimovic-Sara, has an MA in Biological Counter Terrorism Studies, with special interests of researching and writing about Biological Weapons, Biosecurity and Biodefense. Sandra hails from Serbia.