Americans have long worried about large-scale war and terrorism, but the terrorist attack of two weeks ago has put new fears on everybody’s mind.
Although international law bans the development of biological warfare, the question of whether this ban will deter terrorists still lingers.
Biological warfare is commonly referred to as the “poor man’s nuclear bomb” because of its accessibility, low cost and the small amount of ammunition needed for an effective attack.
Producing fatal bacteria and viruses is relatively cheap, considering that about one gram of anthrax produces 100 million lethal dosages, and information on how to produce these weapons appears openly on the Internet.
Biological weapons can easily be concealed and transported to airports and subways, where officials may not be adequately equipped to identify the dangerous substances.
This week, the FAA placed a two-day ban on pesticide-releasing planes, used as crop-dusters. The ban resulted from increased concerns about the possibility of biological and chemical warfare; the FBI lifted the ban on Tuesday.
David Leheny, UW assistant professor of political science, said the threat of biological weapons being used against the U.S. is slim.
“I don’t see it happening,” Leheny said. “I cannot envision any government openly breaking the taboo on biological weapons and risking its own annihilation in the near future.”
Biological weapons consist of deadly bacteria or viruses, whereas chemical weapons usually consist of poisonous gases.
Leheny said anthrax and smallpox are the most common types of biological weapons. Anthrax, a bacterium found in farm animals, is spread by the eating or handling of contaminated meat and can be fatal when inhaled. If anthrax is identified within the first two days of contamination, it may be treatable with high doses of antibiotics.
Smallpox, a highly contagious airborne virus that was nearly eliminated in the 1970s, has no treatment. A vaccine exists, but its stock is limited.
Unfortunately, smallpox and anthrax are only two of many weapons.
“Most people think that [these] would be the easiest to use, but that’s because we know the Soviet Union tested anthrax and because of some educated guesses about smallpox,” Leheny said. “This means that, as always, we’re basing predictions on what we know, rather than on what we don’t know, which may be a lot.”
The United States is currently taking steps to combat bio-terrorism. Since the Tokyo sarin gas attack in 1995, the U.S. takes the potential threat more seriously. The CIA, police, military and other groups are trained to recognize significant biological weapons, but no one can predict what kind of weapon will be used or where an incident will take place.
UW professor of medicine Dennis Maki said the U.S. needs to take the same steps to eliminate bio-terrorism as those needed to eliminate conventional terrorism.
However, Maki said, this may prove to be a difficult task.
“People have predicted for years that there would be an attack with smallpox or the like; no one predicted that hijackers would fly jets into the Pentagon and WTC,” Leheny said.
Experts, including William Weidanz, UW professor of medical microbiology and immunology and co-director of a bio-terrorism course, are working to dispel public myths about the true danger of biological weapons.
“There is a threat in reality, but the real danger is overreacting,” Wiedanz said. “It should not be a major issue at this time.”