Tag Archive for: bioterrorism

What’s so interesting about microbiology? Microorganisms were here before man walked the Earth, and they’ll be here after we’re gone. Actually, you would find it difficult to survive without them. Some bacteria, called commensals, live in and on our bodies to our benefit, protecting  us from invading pathogens (disease causing germs), and they produce vitamins.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are the bad bugs. They’re responsible for more deaths than cancer, heart attacks, and war. They can disfigure, eat flesh, paralyze, or just make you feel so bad you wish you were dead.

There are four major types of microorganisms: bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites. They can cause damage directly, or they can release toxins that do the dirty work for them.

CDC image


CDC image

 


 

CDC image


CDC image


So, how can your villains use microorganisms to kill? First they’ll need a fundamental knowledge of microbiology, such as information that’s taught in a basic college course. Next, the bad guy will need a source of bacteria. Microbiology labs all over the world contain bugs of all types.

Labs of this type are secure so a little B & E would be in order. Or, maybe your villain has a connection with a person who has control of the bug of interest. If so, the evil-doer could make what’s known in the trade as a V.I.P. trip. He’d fly to the friend’s lab, place the bug in a plastic vial, hide the vial in his pocket (V.I.P.), and get back on the plane for the trip home.

Once the potential killer has the bug, he has to keep it alive and reproducing. Bacteria are grown on agar plates (food for bugs) in an incubator. In general, bacteria double in number every 20 minutes. So, if you start with just a few bugs, let’s say 10, and allow them to grow overnight…well, you do the math. Once the bad guy has enough of the bug, then it’s time to deliver it to the intended victim.

Picking up bacteria from agar plate. The brownish-red material is the agar. The grayish coloring at the top of the agar is E.coli bacteria.

Now for a true story. It wasn’t murder, just an unfortunate accident that involved a woman, some green beans, and a home canning jar. Canning jars have lids designed to exhibit a slight indentation in their centers when food is fresh. If the indentation inverts (pops up), the vegetables may be contaminated, and should be discarded.

A woman was preparing dinner for her family and decided to serve some of her home-canned green beans that evening. She picked up a jar of beans, but thought the pop-up didn’t look quite right. So, to satisfy her curiosity, she opened the jar, touched her finger to the bean juice, and tasted it. It tasted fine to her, so she cooked the beans and served the steaming hot dish to her family. The next day the woman died, but her family survived. The beans contained botulism toxin produced by the bacteria, Clostridium botulinum. C. botulinum lives naturally in the soil.

Botulism toxin is one of the most powerful neurotoxins known to man. About 10 ounces could kill everyone on Earth. It works by paralyzing its victim. Why didn’t the other members of the family die? The toxin is inactivated by heat.


Dr. Denene Lofland received her PhD degree in pathology from the Medical College of Virginia, and she’s a trained clinical microbiologist. She has served as the Director of Clinical Laboratory Sciences at Wright State University, and has worked in biotech/drug research and development for many years.

As a biotech director she and her team developed and received FDA approvals of the drugs gemifloxacin (Factive), an antibiotic for the treatment of bacterial pneumonia, and Cayston, an inhaled antibiotic for cystic fibrosis. Both medications have been prescribed by physicians worldwide.

As Manager of Operations for a company that specialized in high-level anti-bioterrorism research and development, Denene supervised several projects,  including government-sponsored research for the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), which required her to maintain a secret security clearance.

Denene has published numerous articles in scientific and other peer-reviewed journals. She contributed to the thirteenth edition of Bailey and Scott’s Diagnostic Microbiology, and she’s a contributing author of the Textbook of Diagnostic Microbiology (Elsevier 2022).

She was recently named a Fellow of the Association of Clinical Scientists, an elite association of top scientists from around the world that includes pathologists, clinical chemists, molecular and cell biologists, microbiologists, immunologists, hematologists, cytogeneticists, toxicologists, pharmacokineticists, clinicians, cancer researchers and other doctoral scientists who are experts in laboratory methods for the elucidation, diagnosis, and treatment of human diseases.

Denene currently serves as Microbiology and Immunology Thread Director at Drexel University College of Medicine.

“Yes, Sam, you heard me correctly. The murder weapon was indeed a wisecracking, bucktooth bunny.”

“Don’t be silly, Daffy. I can’t imagine how she could bludgeon the man to death using a long-eared galoot.”

“No more speculation, please,” said the famous cartoon duck. “Here’s how she did it …”

Tularemia

Tularemia, or rabbit fever as it’s commonly called, is no stranger to the United States. After its discovery in 1911 in Tulare, California, the disease became known as a killing machine. It killed a large number of ground squirrels before finding its way into human bodies where it infected hunters and other outdoorsmen, and any others who came into contact with infected animals.

Today, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports roughly 200 cases of Tularemia (Francisella tularensis) each year in America. Only about two percent of those cases are fatal. However, since it is possible to transform the tularemia microbe to an aerosol form, the plague-like disease could be used as a very effective biological weapon.

Killers in mystery novels might find tularemia a most effective way to murder their victims, since pathologists and toxicologists do not routinely screen for it during autopsy. And, Tularemia is not easily detected by doctors.

Tularemia-carrying organisms are readily found in wild animals—particularly feral rabbits—in their feces. It’s also found in water and mud. Humans can contract tularemia by handling the hides, paws, or flesh of wild rabbits. They can also catch the disease by eating undercooked rabbit meat. Ticks, mosquitoes, and deer flies can transfer the sickness to humans through their bites.

A hunter with an open cut or wound can contract tularemia simply by skinning a rabbit. A murderous spouse could introduce the bacteria into her unsuspecting hunter-husband’s food (Tularemia-tainted meat), then blame the death on the infected rabbits the sportsman shot during his hunt. The wife could easily explain the symptoms away until her husband was too far-gone for medical help.

The disease offers a variety of symptoms, depending upon the way it is introduced to the victim. Inhaled tularemia, the method most likely to be used by terrorists, presents flu-like symptoms—fever, chills, loss of appetite, cough, and headache. Swollen lymph nodes, skin ulcers, and pneumonia can accompany these symptoms.

Certain strains of tularemia are currently incurable because they have been genetically engineered to be antibiotic-resistant. This disease, though deadly, cannot be spread by human-to-human contact.

The use of tularemia in germ warfare is not new to the military. In 1932 and again in 1945, the Japanese studied using tularemia as a possible biological weapon. Thousands of Soviet and German soldiers serving on the Eastern front during WWII succumbed to tularemia. There is some speculation that the disease was introduced to them intentionally.

The U.S. also developed and stockpiled tularemia (by freezing). The military conducted tests on the agent (code named Agent UL) by spraying barges containing monkeys in the waters off Hawaii. The spray was introduced by aircraft over several miles. As a result, over half the monkeys were infected with tularemia. Approximately half of the infected monkeys died.

An American fell ill with Tularemia when he ran over an infected rabbit while mowing his lawn. It was this instance that cemented the fact that tularemia could be contracted by inhalation. In 2000, an outbreak of tularemia occurred on Martha’s Vineyard. The cause of the outbreak .. lawn mowing. In 2003, a Nantucket maintenance worker ran over an infected rabbit with his lawnmower, however, it was not he who contracted the disease. Instead, it was a co-worker who used a stick to remove the animal to nearby bushes.

Terrorists could transmit the bacteria either in food or by an aerosol propellant. Large numbers of people could be infected at once with only a microscopic amount of the bacteria.

So, what have we learned from all this? That’s right, be vewy, vewy quiet when hunting wabbits …

Everyone, especially well-informed writers, know that cops must obtain a search warrant prior to searching people and places, when doing so without permission. And, to convince a judge to sign off on a search warrant officers must present the probable cause they believe exists.

Those same officers may not force or coerce a suspect to confess or otherwise incriminate themselves. Defendants in criminal cases are entitled to a trial by jury and they must be provided an attorney to represent them if they cannot afford to hire one. They are entitled to have the case against them proved beyond a reasonable doubt, or not. They may not be properly imprisoned, and they must be prosecuted under a true law. One that, without a doubt, outlines an illegal act.

In other words, the hands of the police are tied up quite nicely when it comes to protections of the rights of citizens. Doesn’t mean those rights are not occasionally violated (intentionally, or not), but these hard and fast rules are spelled out in back and white.

The above, however, are the rules pertaining to police officers and their actions relating to criminal cases and searche. They also pertain to the rights of the targets of those investigations. But how do those laws affect the CDC and their quest to safeguard the world against the threat of  disease and/or bioterrorism?

Here’s an eye-opener!

Under the police power authority granted  by the constitution, public health officials may search and seize without probable-cause and/or a warrants. They’re legally permitted to take enforcement actions without court hearings. In fact, courts defer to the discretion of public health officials.

Public health officials have an enormous amount of flexibility when it comes to creating and designing and implementing enforcement strategies and planning. Here’s the icing on the cake—they must only prove their cases by a “more probable than not” standard. And this holds up when or if the actions are challenged in court.

The doctrine of state “police power” was adopted in early America from English common law principles. Those ideologies directed the restriction of an individual’s rights when needed for safeguarding of the common good (stop the spread of disease or other serious health and safety issues).

Today, when we hear the phrase “police powers” we tend to think of the authority granted to police officers that permits them to legally arrest criminal suspects. However, “police powers” is not a term that’s equal with criminal enforcement tactics, techniques, and procedures. Instead, the police powers granted, by law, to the CDC and other public health agencies, including federal, local, and state public health officials, authorizes them to develop and enforce civil self-protection rules.

In short, public health police power allows each state to enforce isolation and quarantine, health, and inspection laws. And, simply put, this is to help prevent the spread of disease.

Now, all of this does not mean there are gun-toting, handcuff-bearing CDC cops who break down doors to haul out family members who’re suffering from a bad and highly contagious case of Ebolasyphhlianthraxiosis. But feel free to assume that the CDC is mindful of the threats to our borders regarding bioterrorism. After all, who knows what could slip onto our shores under the cover of darkness.

Still, when health officials deal with folks who need arresting or non-compliant confinement, they call on the local, state, or federal law enforcement officials for assistance.

“Police powers of the states are an expression of civil authority.” ~ National Institute of Health

 

The National Institute of Health (NIH) went on to state that police powers are a state’s ability to control, regulate, or prohibit non-criminal behavior. Health officials, they say, may use these police powers to mandate treatment, prohibit or direct a particular conduct, or to detain and isolate, which, ironically, is incarceration of a quasi-criminal nature. And they can hold you for as long as they deem necessary. Remember, too, the earlier mention that courts typically defer to public health officials and do not intervene.

Separation of civil authority from law enforcement

To sum up:

  • Public health police powers are an expression of the civil, not criminal, authority of the state.
  • Criminal and civil enforcement of laws must remain separate. Public health officials should never become a part of criminal law enforcement because doing so would restrict their capabilities to “act now” in the event of a bioterrorism attack, or in the event of an outbreak of a contagious and deadly disease. They’d then be subjected to criminal law regarding search and seizure, probable cause, and even safeguarding a person’s presumption of innocence.
  • CDC officials are NOT police officers.
  • CDC officials have the power to isolate and quarantine.
  • Public health officials and law enforcement work hand-in-hand, especially in cases of bioterrorism.

Per the CDC:

Isolation and Quarantine

Isolation and quarantine help protect the public by preventing exposure to people who have or may have a contagious disease.

  • Isolation separates sick people with a contagious disease from people who are not sick.
  • Quarantine separates and restricts the movement of people who were exposed to a contagious disease to see if they become sick.

In addition to serving as medical functions, isolation and quarantine also are “police power” functions, derived from the right of the state to take action affecting individuals for the benefit of society.


Here’s a news flash that isn’t fake. There are people in this world who want to hurt us. Well, us and anyone else they manage to get in their sights. And, as we’ve seen all across the world, those bad folks use a variety of means to carry out their deadly missions—explosives, vehicles, gunfire, knives, etc.

While different, those instruments of death all have one thing in common—each is visible with the naked eye. Therefore, we can at least see those things. But what if we couldn’t? Suppose cars and knives and guns were all invisible and we had no means of detecting their presence? What if an invisible weapon existed, one capable of killing thousands all in a single act? Okay, and as Amazon’s Alexa would say, “Here’s your flash briefing.” There are indeed extremely powerful invisible weapons—biological agents—that can kill thousands upon thousands of people. Millions, even.

We provide extra gear for our police and military, equipment designed to keep them safe and to help conduct the arrest of armed, dangerous bad guys. We install barriers to prevent vehicle attacks on public buildings. We have radar and aircraft designed to defend the country against missile attacks. Our navy stands watch in the sea. Police and military and private citizens and corporations all train officers, agents, soldiers, family members, and employees in ways to protect against violent attack (active shooters, etc.).

But what about the invisible killers, the things capable killing entire populations—every single man, woman, child, and animal—of towns, cities, counties, and possibly an entire state and beyond? What have we done to safeguard against something as deadly as a bioterrorism attack?

Not an actual street and not a real “Secret Sniffer.”

Fortunately, there’s BioWatch, the early-warning detection system that constantly “sniffs” the air to detect the release of biological agents. Managed by the Office of Health Affairs/Department of Homeland Security, BioWatch, a network of over 30 jurisdictions across the U.S., receives support from other federal agencies, scientists, laboratory techs, public health officials, state and local authorities, and emergency managers.

Air sensors/monitors/collectors are positioned in various locations throughout the 30+ jurisdictions (these jurisdictions are made up of numerous towns, cities, and counties within a specific area). Scientists monitor the collectors, and they collect and analyze samples collected in the filters.

BioWatch collectors are positioned on sidewalks (attached to utility poles and other stationary items). They’re also in airports, bus stations, sporting areas, and other such areas.

Should a biological agent be detected at one of the sensors, the alert system is activated and authorities are immediately notified. Life-saving measures are then to be set in motion, such as supplying each citizen with a proper antidote.

Painting the town, one nose and one brick at a time.