It is not just a matter of time when the biological terrorism will hit our world with no mercy.  It is also a matter of choice what agent we will be attacked with. There are no right or wrong pathogens but there are always victims. The Civilian Biodefense is definitely in trouble because from 10 very well known microbes; the modern bio warriors could try to kill us with the forgotten 11th one. Bioterrorism is simply unpredictable so are the outcomes of the asymmetric biological war.

biohazardIn the age of terrorism challenges, dreaming about ensured Biosafety sounds like utopia. There is no magical key to lock our fears and unlock our hopes. The terrorists nowadays are capable to crawl into the jaws of non-conventional weapons and to use all their imagination to fight their goals and to keep the states and people in the permanent panic. That is the typical modus operandi of terrorism, the theater atmosphere with the horror background. The world we live in is the Hotel California in its best.

Among so many available options for terrorists to make biological weapons, I believe that Botulinum toxin is one of the most attractive micro killers.  First of all, it is very lethal but also very easy to be produced. The fact that small amount of this toxin can cause the fatal illness is more than enough inviting and thrilling for bioterrorists to start digging for more.  This toxin comes from bacteria Clostridium botulinum that is generated in the soil. How we usually get infected by this agent? It happens when we eat contaminated food or by absorbing the bacteria through the skin cuts or other wounds. However, the disease is very rare in the natural environment and only about 200 cases are reported in the USA annually.  What makes a great concern is capacity of this toxin to be abused for contamination of the food supplies, or even delivered throughout the aerosol dissemination on the targeted area or population.

The governments have really never given up working on the militarization of the Botulinum toxin.  If we recall the memories from the unstable international political climate during the Cold War, we will be aware of the efforts of the U.S. and former Soviet Union and Iraq to aggregate this toxin and make it useful for war strategies. Who will be sure that Biological Weapons Convention keep states obligated to be away from the Biological Weapons Program when the same one is so tempting?

The bacteria is not a new one, it is very well famous to the mankind for centuries, especially the disease it causes. Botulism is considered as neuroparalytic illness based on the activity of potent Botulinum neurotoxins (BoNTS). If the affected one is without treatment, the death is ultimate through the severe stages of pain and paralysis of respiratory muscles. But, on the other side, this neurotoxin is also available to be used as licensed drug for the neurological disorders.  It is more than fascinating how one natural segment could be used as a cure and abused as a poison. This is the collage of life and death.

The terrorists, obsessed with idea to harm the system they hate, usually do not think about the legendary Botox injections for erasing the wrinkles. Their strategy is to cause the panic because the disease is often misdiagnosed and thus, the time lacks.  The toxin attacks very fast the central nervous system and blocks the acetylcholine that helps the exchange among cells. The process is ended up with the paralysis. If the real indicator is not recognized, the therapy will fail and the patient will die. The clinical picture is very dark and bioterrorism sees its own potential in this agent. Even if the antitoxin is given, the recovery will be slow and mechanical ventilation will be necessary so the victim could be able to breathe.

The botulinum neurotoxin is the most poisonous substance in the world; it is six million times more toxic as the rattlesnake venom but to work and produce it is not the easiest job. The good thing about the bioterrorism is absence of KNOW and HOW and the existence of professional ignorance when it comes to the biotechnology. The fanatical terrorists or lone wolf system haters cannot learn from the book how to make the dangerous botulinum neurotoxin.  One must be a maestro to link all crucial steps and to start the process of production. The molecule is very complex while it consists of very toxic protein and the temperature must be appropriate, with the total absence of the oxygen.  In any other case, the botulinum spores will die. The average terrorists do not know the standards for it and if they play too much, they could be having boomerang.  All they can do is to order the instant bolutinum toxin from the real expert. Let’s say that someone is a professional in microbiological field and he doesn’t have sympathy for system and he is willing to sell his master work to other haters. The ideological chain could bring into the life our neurotoxins and all of us into the death. Then, the terrorists will have an opened highway for their bio war. They could find vulnerable targets, particularly the food supplies or the fabrics that make canned food. According to some experts, the botulinum neurotoxin that is once exposed to the air loses its potency so it is not so effective on the battleground. Nevertheless, it is ideal for the sabotage.

The mentioned neurotoxin deserves our respect, preventive and preemptive thoughts and strategies.  The ability of this agent to be beneficial for human health and also so deadly for each individual puts the BoNTS among the top ten most dangerous molecular sharks. The possibility to be misused by some of the anti-system and terrorist subjects should be additionally analyzed and covered with the responsive working defense standards. The laboratories must be secured so the personal that is skilled to deal with this issue. The channels of biomaterial trade should be monitored by the state authorities.  The channel that is out of regular lines must be observed by the security professional and measured by biological safety advanced parameters. Only in that case, we could be enough lucky to prevent any damage that would cost us too much, that would cost us our lives.

By: Sandra Schmidt, MSc

LISTEN: Bioterrorism: A history, the agents and more