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The frightening prospect of terrorism through bio-warfare

The New Straits Times, October 7, 2001

By Professor Dzulkifli Abdul Razak

IN the book War and Anti-war published in 1993, the Tofflers (Alvin and Heidi) alluded to chaos that would send a financial shock wave across the world if the World Trade Center or Wall Street district were to be attacked. Only, at that time, they were referring to an "info-terrorist" attack rather than the likes of what actually happened on Sept 11. But they were correct in pointing out that one does not need sophisticated weaponry to accomplish a similar effect. So it seems to be in the case for bioterrorism as well.

In fact, an article in Scientific American (http://www.sciam.com/1296issue/1296cole.html) quoted a former assistant director of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency who after visiting several biotechnology and pharmaceutical firms, was "absolutely convinced" that a major biological arsenal could be built with US$10,000 (RM38,000) worth of equipment in a normal-sized room.

Allegedly, trillions of bacteria can be cultivated at relatively little risk to one's self with gear no more sophisticated than a beer fermenter and a protein-based culture, a gas mask and a plastic overgarment.

While the general sentiment is that a bioterrorism attack is still far-fetched, let us not forget a similar sentiment expressed in an article of The Economist (July 21) saying, "the launching of ‘suicide strikes' on American soil by some eccentric tyrant may be unlikely". This is barely a few months before the ill-fated September morning suicide attacks in New York and Washington.

Indeed in expounding on new and "sanitised" war-forms, the Tofflers point to the increasing threats of terrorism; nuclear, chemical and biological.

The latter may range from the use of not-so sophisticated methods to state-of-the art genetic engineering technology.

In any case, together they can produce a powerful arsenal of biological weapons or bioweapons which of late has raised much concern as global tension heightens (NST, Sept. 29).

Bioweapons generally are made up of biological agents used as weapons to cause injury or  to destroy humans, animals or plants.

In biological warfare, such weapons are used to intentionally inflict harm causing disruptions, if not destruction. This is done usually by dispersing the agent by means of an aerosol spray, for example. Biological agents can also be used to contaminate food, water and other products. Once inhaled or ingested, unlike most chemical agents that react immediately, biological agents und-ergo an incubation period of a few hours to several days before any symptoms appear. By then it may be too late, say experts.

Technically, the biological agents are microorganisms such as bacteria (as in the case of anthrax, smallpox, plague, botulism, tularemia) and viruses (Ebola, Marburg).

And to grow them into a biological arsenal may not take much since a single bacterium can give rise to more than a billion copies in 10 hours. A small vial of microorganisms can yield a huge number in less than a week.

Therefore, how equipped are we in managing the fallout from bioweapons? The answer to this question could be gauged from the many incidences involving microbes, such as the recent foot-and-mouth outbreak in Britain.

Warned Sir William Stewart in a presidential address on the opening day of the British Association Festival of Science: "We only have to look at the current foot-and-mouth episode to see what can go wrong if we are not properly prepared and when a bug is not adequately contained." Such incidences emphasise the difficulty that arises when a disease gets out of control.

Talking to BBC Online, Sir William noted: "No country in the world is adequately prepared" for biological warfare, while commenting that there was a growing threat on a global scale from microbes. This includes an increasing pool of man-made genetically modified viruses, with at least 30 known microbes in the world that could potentially be misused as biological warfare agents. Anthrax has caught the media attention recently (www.newscientist.com/hottopics/bioterrorism).

More than this, a US conference was told early this year that the creation of a synthetic virus is nearing reality. In the next five years, the prediction is that scientists will have the technology to create a "wholly artificial virus". Our protection remains with the rigid compliance to the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, ( www.un.org/Depts/-dda/WMD/page6.html), a treaty that prohibits the development or possession of biological weapons. This multi-lateral treaty that describes bio-weaponry as "repugnant to the conscience of mankind", in fact, bans offensive biological weapons, with the goal to totally eliminate the weapon systems; whilst allowing for so-called "defensive work".

Even then the US rejected it as reported in the New Scientist (www.newscientist.com/hottopics/bioterrorism/bioterrorism.jsp?id=ns99991076), and there is no telling what can happen next.

It is therefore vital, as the Tofflers suggest, to deliberate on comprehensive "anti-war" strategies aimed at preventing war, including a strategy for peace to halt weapons proliferation and creating new consciousness on non-violence. Otherwise as graffiti on the foothpath across from the Islamic Cultural Centre in New York reminds us: "An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind." 

Recommended site: http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/EID/vol4no3/hendrsn.htm      

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