Mason Researcher Details Risk of Bioterrorism in New Book

Posted: February 1, 2010 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: January 29, 2010 at 4:10 pm

By James Greif

Gregory Koblentz. Photo by Nicolas Tan

Gregory Koblentz. Photo by Nicolas Tan

With terrorism being one of the major security concerns of the 21st century, governments are developing sophisticated systems to defend against the use of biological weapons, such as anthrax or smallpox. However, the general public understands little about these weaponized pathogens, leading to fear about our vulnerability to such an attack.

Gregory Koblentz, assistant professor and deputy director of Mason’s master’s and doctoral biodefense programs, has written a new book on biological weapon defense that helps to clear up some of the mystery. Titled “Living Weapons: Biological Warfare and International Security,” the book is part of the Cornell University Press Studies in Security Affairs Series.

Critically acclaimed by biodefense scholars around the world, “Living Weapons” was heralded as an “up-to-date and comprehensive analysis of biological weapons as a strategic problem that should become the standard text in the field” in a Foreign Affairs review.

Koblentz discussed the book and his thoughts on the threat of biological weapons.

What are some of the challenges in security related to biological weapons?

Unlike nuclear and chemical weapons, biological weapons are composed of, or derived from, living organisms. This unique characteristic is at the heart of many of the security challenges that they pose. The diversity of pathogenic microorganisms and toxins that can be used as weapons provides an attacker with flexibility in planning and conducting an attack and greatly complicates the task of the defender. The ability of pathogens to replicate themselves inside a host enables an attacker to use only a small amount of a biological weapon to inflict mass casualties. The overlap between the equipment, knowledge and materials required to develop biological weapons and to conduct civilian biomedical research or develop biological defenses — what I call the multi-use dilemma — limits the effectiveness of arms control measures, hinders civilian oversight and complicates intelligence collection and analysis. As a result, it is difficult to verify that biotechnology is not being misused for hostile purposes, to exercise effective oversight over biological weapons programs and to obtain accurate assessments of a state’s capabilities and intentions. This is a dangerous and destabilizing combination of characteristics for a technology that is becoming increasingly available throughout the world.

What kinds of defense strategies does the United States have against a biological attack?

Since 2001, the United States has spent over $50 billion to prevent, prepare for and respond to a biological attack. The largest investment has been in the research, development and acquisition of new vaccines, therapeutics, diagnostics and detection systems. The United States now has a system in place to detect an attack with an aerosolized biological agent on major cities, a biosurveillance system to detect unusual clusters of symptoms or syndromes, and a laboratory network to identify biological threat agents. The United States also has large stockpiles of anthrax and smallpox vaccines, as well as antibiotics and other medical supplies needed to respond to a large biological attack. The ability of medical and public health systems to respond to both natural and man-made disasters has also been improved through training, exercising, planning and capacity building. Preventing bioterrorism has perennially received the least amount of resources and attention. That is set to change under the Obama Administration, which just released a biosecurity strategy that places a strong emphasis on preventive measures.

Terrorist activity in the last few years has not included biological weapons. Why is this? Is this likely to change?

As we see every day in Iraq and Afghanistan, guns and bombs remain the preferred weapons of terrorists and insurgents. These weapons are cheap, easy to use and widely available. There are two trends, however, that increase the risk of bioterrorism in the future. The first is the emergence of increasingly lethal terrorist groups that are interested in causing mass casualties. The focus of groups such as Al-Qaeda and its affiliates on causing mass casualties and conducting “spectacular” attacks is worrisome since it creates an incentive for such groups to explore new ways of causing death and destruction. The second trend is the globalization of the biotechnology revolution, which makes the equipment, material and knowledge necessary to develop these weapons more widely available. Based on past experience, we are unlikely to receive sufficient warning of a terrorist group that combines the motivation to cause mass casualties with the capability to employ disease as a weapon.

As you mentioned in your book, the general public is quite fearful of these weapons. In the Washington, D.C., area, we saw the panic that arose with the anthrax letter attack of 2001. What information in your book would be useful for citizens to know about the threat of these weapons and how to protect themselves? What sort of information could the media provide to reduce panic?

Biological weapons are the least well understood of the so-called weapons of mass destruction, which include nuclear and chemical weapons. Government officials and academics frequently lump biological weapons together with nuclear and chemical weapons under the category of “weapon of mass destruction” or discuss the “chem-bio” threat. The use of these terms has obscured important differences between these different types of weapons. Learning about the history of these weapons, how they work, and what their limitations are should help people put the threat of biological weapons into the proper context.

The media is fascinated with our society’s vulnerability to attack and to the potential consequences of an attack, but they tend to downplay or ignore the technical obstacles to actually conducting a successful biological terrorist attack. For example, despite its impressive resources, the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo failed to cause any casualties with biological weapons, despite numerous attempts to do so. The media also tends to report more on problems with our biodefense programs and less on their successes, which skews the public’s perception of how well prepared the nation is for an attack.

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