Courtesy Reuters

The Nightmare of Bioterrorism

TOOLS IN HAND

As the twenty-first century begins, the following nations possess biological weapons: Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, China, North Korea, Russia, Israel, Taiwan, and possibly Sudan, India, Pakistan, and Kazakhstan. The list cuts across lines of ideology, politics, and geography. In addition, according to intelligence sources in Europe and the United States, militant political groups across the globe are now developing or seeking to purchase biological weapons for terrorist use.

Meanwhile, the sophistication of biological weaponry has improved by leaps and bounds. Until 1985, all of the world's biological-weapons makers were stuck with the same list of pathogens and toxins that could kill thousands of enemies and be delivered with missiles or large-scale aerosol systems. Each nation knew the list and stocked antidotes and vaccines. It was a standoff.

But biology in the last decade has been what physics was in the 1940s and 1950s: a field of exponential discovery. What seemed impossible in 1980 was accomplished by 1990 and, by 2000, had become ho-hum fodder for high school biology classes. By the late 1990s, a massive pool of bioengineers, equipped with genetic blueprints to guide their efforts, had emerged. Determining the genetic sequence of a virus, such as Ebola, was no longer much of a feat. In 1998, scientists at the Frederick Cancer Research Center in Maryland determined, at the genetic level, exactly how anthrax kills human cells.

In response to such advances, Western militaries hardened their defenses against biological warfare as they vaccinated troops, stockpiled antitoxins, stored appropriate antibiotics, purchased protective suits and masks, practiced war-game drills involving biological weapons, and supported research on potential microbe-detecting devices. But no one had a master plan for dealing with the collateral impact of biological weapons on civilians located around the combat zone -- or the deliberate impact of bioterrorist damage inflicted on an unsuspecting community. Were a terrorist to disperse the smallpox virus, for example, populations that were once universally vaccinated would now be horribly vulnerable. Today the U.S. government stows only about 15.4 million

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