Viruses and Bacteria as Weapons
In the grand scheme of murder, knives and guns pale in comparison to the instruments death that are nearly invisible to the human eye. Long before man shaped the first stone into a weapon, viruses and bacteria silently killed humans and animals alike. These tiny but deadly organisms can shut down the body’s entire operating system, and they can destroy every single organ in the body.
A terrorist attack involving deadly viruses and bacteria is a threat that looms over the heads of government officials. After all, a single, minute particle of either of the killer bugs, such as anthrax, botulism, tularemia, bubonic plague, ricin, ebola, and hantavirus, can be easily cultured and multiplied many times over. This process can be performed in any home in the country with minimal time, training, and equipment.
How easy? Well, a potential terrorist could simply order a starter bug from a laboratory supply company (a reference lab), much like a reader orders a book from Amazon. The bug is shipped to the buyer as a freeze-dried sample in the regular U.S. mail, or with any of the other popular shipping companies.
Frozen “bugs” are easily shipped via regular mail services
Of course, reference lab customers must have proper credentials to place an order for anthrax. However, packages could easily be intercepted by people with ill-intentions against the U.S. and its citizens. And, how difficult would it be for a potential terrorist to gain employment in the biotech industry (new drug discovery)? This is a field that’s comprised of scientists who work with these bugs on a daily basis with very little accountability, if any, in many instances. Many of these science-folks come to us from other countries and would be virtually undetectable as terrorists until it was too late. And, if all else failed for the terrorist, he could find the bacteria in its natural environment, growing naturally on dead plant material and in fresh water or rainwater.
Anthrax is caused by a spore-forming bacteria, Bacillus anthracis. Humans can become infected through skin contact, ingestion or inhalation of spores from infected animals or animal products. Anthrax can be delivered as a powder, such as in the cases of the letters mailed to U.S. officials. However, a better, more deadly method of delivery would be in aerosol form. Once the bacteria are inhaled, the disease progresses so rapidly that, once the symptoms began to appear, it would most likely be too late to prevent the victim’s death.
Symptoms of anthrax contamination include, skin infections, fever, chills, fluid in the lungs, difficulty breathing, nausea, weight loss, fever, diarrhea, and abdominal bleeding. Contrary to the belief of some people, inhaled anthrax contamination is not contagious. It cannot be passed from one person to another.
Anthrax study requires that the work be conducted in a Biosafety Level 2 laboratory (BSL 2 labs are required to have waste contamination equipment on hand). However, if the study is to be performed on anthrax in aerosol form, a BSL 3 lab is required (BSL 3 labs require testing in enclosed equipment with high-tech ventilation systems. Access is limited to only those working on current experiments).
A 2008 anthrax investigation involving aggressive interview tactics by police investigators led to a bit of public protest. As experts, FBI agent and behavioral scientist Clint Van Zandt and I were once called on to discuss those tactics on NPR’s Talk of the Nation. You may remember Agent Van Zandt from his involvement in high-profile cases, such as Waco/David Koresh, Timothy McVeigh, and The Unabomber.
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