Plague Wars


Gas!  Gas!  Gas!

Hydrogen is a colourless, odorless gas which, given enough time, turns into people.

- Henry Hiebert

by Rosie DiManno

Mask might help, if I could get it on in nine seconds...

Dulce et Decorum Est

(written during the Great War about a mustard gas attack)

by Wilfred Owen (1893 - 1918)

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Til on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many has lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! - An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime. -
Dim, through the misty planes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil'd sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, -
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie; Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori

(The Latin means "It is sweet and becoming to die for one's country.")

Bend over and kiss your ass goodbye.

- Toronto Star reporter, chemical warfare training course, February, 2003

Heckfield Hook, England - Between that Great War and this Gambit War, we've invented ever-more diabolical ways to kill by the masses.  Mustard gas, deployed in the trenches of France nearly 90 years ago, seems almost innocuous by comparison.  It was never intended to kill, "merely" to cause blistering of the skin, the respiratory passages, the internal organs - thereby terrifying and demoralising the enemy while clogging the medical system with thousands of casualties.

Still, mustard gas remains a handy chemical agent, easy and cheap to produce.  It was the gateway chemical weapon for Saddam Hussein when he started stockpiling nasties in 1974, before turning his labs to production of simple nerve gases such as sarin and tabun.  It was mustard gas that Saddam used against opposing troops during his pointless 8-year war with Iran.  Many victims of the gassings still languish in hospital, unable to breathe on their own.  And mustard gas was in the toxic stew when Saddam unleashed pounding bombardments of chemical weapons, plus high explosives, against the Kurds in the late '80s, leaving some 200,000 dead.

By the time of Desert Storm in 1991, Saddam had a cornucopia of chemical and biological agents, up to 10 billion doses of the wretched stuff.  He claims to have destroyed it all, but no one believes that and certainly not the United Nations weapons inspectors who've been on the ground in Iraq for the past three months, seeking proof of the alleged broad junking - an all but impossible task, given that Iraq maintains it kept no records of how and when and where the weapons were destroyed.

The United Nations says Iraq has failed to account for 1,000 tonnes of chemical agents from the war against Iran, has failed to reveal the whereabouts of 6,500 missing chemical rockets, has failed to provide evidence that it destroyed 8,500 litres of anthrax and has failed to account for 380 rocket engines smuggled into Iraq with chemicals used for missile propellants and control systems.  Iraq claims it "lost" 550 shells filled with mustard gas after the Gulf War.  Also unaccounted for: 5,000 litres of concentrated anthrax.

You remember anthrax?  An acute bacterial spore that spews out toxins, poisoning the skin tissues and causing organs to fail.  Developed as part of larger biological weapons programs by several countries, including the former Soviet Union and the United States.  The World Health Organization estimates that releasing aerosolised anthrax - not the low-grade, powdered stuff that shut down Washington government buildings in October, 2001 - upwind of a population of 5 million would cause 250,000 casualties of whom 100,000 "could be expected" to die.

At the Biological, Chemical and Warfare Awareness Training Course, held in the bucolic setting of Heckfield Place - a 28-hectare Georgian estate in Hampstead - and attended primarily by reporters headed for conflict areas, participants learn nightmare-inducing details about death-in-a-canister.  We've come here as willing participants, sent by media agencies seeking to minimise risks for their correspondents (and also to obtain insurance for them, since such courses are a requirement for coverage in many countries).  Reporters and editors make a conscientious choice about taking combat risks that, in a looming war against Iraq, carry an entirely new and hideous dimension for most of us.  That goes for the military as well as the media - neither contemporary American nor British armies have ever faced biological and chemical attacks.  The equipment has been tested only under simulated conditions.

In my "biological and chemical individual protection equipment" haversack, I have: plastic trousers and jacket, inner and outer gloves, rubber boots, a respirator (gas mask), two filtering canisters, detector paper (which will indicate the presence of some contaminants but not nerve agents), cloth pads filled with Fuller's earth (a powder that will absorb chemical agents and retain it; for dabbing at exposed gear), a plastic puffer bottle containing Fuller's earth (also for decontamination) and an atropine injector pen (for stabbing oneself in the thigh in the event of nerve gas poisoning only; if an agent other than nerve gas is the culprit, the atropine will kill you).  I have a complete medical kit for field dressings.  I have a flak jacket, with PRESS in large white letters across the front, and a combat helmet.

I also have, in the event of a chemical attack, all of nine seconds in which to get my gas mask out of my haversack, turn my back against the wind (if there is any), lean over, affix the mask to my face, with my eyes closed and all the time holding my breath, exhale forcefully whatever contaminants I might have already sucked in, shout "GAS! GAS! GAS!" as a warning to others and then run for cover.  Even in a controlled situation, just pretending, neither I nor colleague Olivia Ward was able to don the mask in nine seconds.  We died.  Repeatedly.

Oh, for the innocent days of artillery and mortar fire.  I am not brave.  And I haven't described all this to solicit sympathy for journalists. It is merely to emphasize the dreadful realities - at least the potential realities - of a war against Iraq.  But, as I've stressed, reporters have a choice.  Soldiers and civilians do not.  The equipment reporters will be carrying in-theatre is heavy, cumbersome and perhaps near useless, in the event.  It's designed for a one-shot attack and cannot be reused if contaminated (taking everything off and disposing of it without exposing oneself to the contaminants that might have adhered to the gear is another laborious exercise that won't be described here).  For journalists, the objective is to leave the danger area immediately and the chemical suit might prove sufficient to the task.  Soldiers, who will likely wear most of this equipment at all times, can't cut and run.  It's all too horrifying to contemplate.  But contemplate it we must.

They have to work and fight under perilous conditions, in far heavier suits, with loads more gear strapped to their bodies.  But they've been trained for this.  Think, instead, of the civilian population of Iraq, people who have no access to protective suits and would be fully exposed to any shifting wind or ill-delivered chemical warhead.  Think of Iraqi troops dug in - as they have been doing - around and inside large urban areas, deploying chemical weapons against an advancing enemy, and the danger this poses to civilians in the area.  Think of Israel, if Saddam delivers chemically tipped bombs just as he lobbed 39 conventional Scuds at that tiny nation during Desert Storm.  Think of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, well within launching distance of Iraqi warheads.  And think of the Kurds in the north, who were gassed by Saddam before and would no doubt experience his vengeful wrath again, because he considers them vermin and in cahoots with the enemy.  Last week, those Kurds were reduced to begging Britain for emergency delivery of gas masks, at least for their children.  For these people, there is no choice.  Their fate rests in the hands of a risk-taking despot who's gassed before.

The expression - weapons of mass destruction - has been used so extensively, even casually, in recent months that it hardly even stings any more.  Some have expressed a growing annoyance with the very term, WMD, as if resentful of the reminder or simply because they do not wish to think about it any more.  But I doubt whether most have thought about it enough, or if they genuinely understand the ghastly qualities of these agents.  Chemical agents are poisons; biological agents are germs.  Both types of agents kill, some more quickly than others, some more agonizingly than others.


bulletBlood agents: Found as a colourless gas or liquid, inhaled, delivered by an ordinary multi-barrelled rocket launcher.  Smell like almonds, kill within minutes, either stopping the heart or exploding it.
bulletChoking agents: Destroy the lining of the lungs so that the victim literally chokes in his own fluids ("dry land drowning").  Smell like new mown hay.  Symptoms may take days to appear in the form of huge blisters that spread their contamination when they burst.
bulletMustards: In liquid form, stick around for a couple of days.  Low-grade stuff smells like garlic; pure-grade has no odour.  One drop on the skin will produce a five-centimetre blister.  Attack the respiratory tract.
bulletArsenics: Faster acting than mustards.  Odour resembles geraniums or roses.  Pain on contact, blisters appearing in 12 to 24 hours.
bulletUrticants: Foul smelling.  Intense pain on contact with the skin, like a bee sting.  Welts form and ooze puss.
bulletNerve agents: Can be deployed as a vapour that is neither seen nor smelled.  Kill by inhalation, penetrate most materials easily, can linger in cold weather for up to two days.  Cause drooling, general weakness, vomiting, muscle jerking and eventually death.


Hundreds, even thousands of times more lethal than chemical weapons, but biological agents are harder to use effectively because they must be inhaled or swallowed to be most lethal.  They degrade quickly.

bulletAnthrax: Spores lodge in the lungs, can remain active in soil and water for years.  No atmospheric warning system yet exists for detecting an aerosol anthrax cloud.  Inhalation (for those not inoculated) results in a mortality rate of almost 100%.
bulletSmallpox: One of the most serious bio-terrorist threats to a civilian population, the virus is highly contagious.  A single case of smallpox can put an entire country at risk.  Vaccine is 100% effective, but populations have not been inoculated since the World Health Organisation announced the disease had been eradicated in 1971.
bulletPlague: Acute bacterial infection with human-to-human transmission occurring principally through infectious respiratory droplets.  Usually takes the form of bubonic plague, which causes lymph nodes to swell and burst.  The first great plague began in Egypt in AD 54 and swept over the entire world within four years.
bulletBotulism: Botulinum toxin is the single most poisonous substance known.
bulletTularaemia and Ebola: Wicked, generally fatal.

I've probably left some out.  And, oh yeah, biological agents can be dispersed via ventilation and water systems.  Perhaps this WMD primer will convince skeptics about the necessity for disarming Saddam and the peril of permitting him to slither away yet again from UN sanctions backed by the threat of war.  But probably not.  Assuredly it will not change the minds of those obsessed by conspiracy theories and the foul premise of war for oil.  This crisis didn't begin with Saddam and his scientists.  It probably started as far back as 400 BC, when the Spartans cleverly catapulted diseased corpses over the walls of their enemies' encampments, thereby spreading contamination.  Once the evil genie was out of the bottle, there was no stuffing it back in.  Scientists and alchemists, usually at the behest of their governments, have been ratcheting up the apocalyptic factor ever since, inventing increasingly lethal poisons, hatching ever more grotesque germs.  It's not known how many countries now possess chemical and biological weapons.  It's impossible to predict whether a malevolent government - or maybe just a greedy individual with the know-how and the access - would ever sell such weapons to terrorist groups.

It's all too horrifying to contemplate.  But contemplate it we must.  Human genius, and ingenuity, created this mess.  Just as the United States and the Soviet Union largely created the malignancy that is now Saddam Hussein, along with any other nation that did dirty business with his regime, providing the foul ingredients for such a noxious arsenal.  "To atone for the errors of the past by repeating them defies logic," British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said on Friday, as he continued making the case for forcefully disarming a tyrant incubated as a Cold War proxy.  "That would be hand-washing."  The blood that will be shed is on those hands, too.

Source: The Toronto Star February 2003

The Germ of a Modern Idea: Five Books on Bioterrorism

In just 20 years terrorism, communications, the jet plane and the increase of wealth and knowledge have forced, to varying degrees,
world leaders into a haunted and secret peerage whose links with the people they guide are meticulously cleansed and staged.

- Hugh Sidey

All the Trouble in the World : The Lighter Side of Overpopulation, Famine, Ecological Disaster, Ethnic Hatred, Plague, and Poverty

by P J O'Rourke

O'Rourke travels to the world's most miserable places (Bangladesh, Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti).  He finds that the people seem relatively happy despite their miserable circumstances and their miserable circumstances are generally brought about by government (big surprise there) or ethnic differences or both.  Since our own government is already responsible for much of our misery and they are certainly trying to highlight and escalate our ethnic differences, there's a good lesson here

Biohazard: The Chilling True Story of the Largest Covert Biological Weapons Program in the World - Told from Inside by the Man Who Ran It

by Ken Alibek with Stephen Handelman (Contributor)

Alibek, once a top scientist in the Soviet Union's biological weapons program, describes putting anthrax on a warhead and targeting a city on the other side of the world.  "A hundred kilograms of anthrax spores would, in optimal atmospheric conditions, kill up to three million people in any of the densely populated metropolitan areas of the United States," he writes.  "A single SS-18 [missile] could wipe out the population of a city as large as New York."

Chilling passages like these, plus discussions of proliferation and terrorism, make Biohazard a harrowing book, but it also has a human side.  Alibek, who defected to the United States, describes the routine danger of his work: "A bioweapons lab leaves its mark on a person forever."  An unending stream of vaccinations has destroyed his sense of smell, afflicted him with allergies, made it impossible to eat certain kinds of food, and "weakened my resistance to disease and probably shortened my life."

In Biohazard, Dr Alibek, born Kanatjan Alibekov in what is now the country of Kazakhstan, then simply a part of the sprawling Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, shares the incredible story of his work in what is perhaps the best-kept secret of the 20th century - Biopreparat, the mammoth chain of state-of-the-art biological weapon development and production plants, mostly built AFTER Leonid Brezhnev solemnly stood beside the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and told the world that the Soviet Union would never make or use biological weapons again.

In the years since then, Alibek tells us how the Soviets not only developed newer and deadlier germs than had ever existed before but under the authority of no less a man than Mikhail Gorbachev filled the warheads of ICBMs with those foul brews and pointed them at the very United States for whom he publicly expressed such friendship.  Perestroika...

It was not until Brezhnev and his Communist empire were both dead and his signature on the biological weapons treaty almost 25 years dry that Russia totally got out of that business... and no one is sure but that one of the 100-odd factories of death strung from the Ukraine to the Pacific Coast of Siberia isn't still silently brewing a ghastly postscript to the story which Alibek shares with us.

Ken Alibek's book is adequately written, well enough to not be unpleasant to read, but not outstandingly so.  Its great value is in the unique knowledge he shares.  Picking up a copy of Biohazard and reading it allows Alibek to throw open the doors of secrecy on one of the deadliest human enterprises ever and show us things so awful that until Americans actually started getting anthrax in the mail, we preferred to simply pretend didn't exist.  Alibek details how this came to be, how a bacillus so fragile that it shrivels and dies within minutes in sunlight has been turned into a weapon terrifying a nation.  The people who made it worked in a secrecy so absolute that the most knowledgeable scientists on biological warfare in the United States scoffed at the idea that the Soviets could be brewing up tons and tons of deadly germs for over 20 years.

There are actually two horror stories in Biohazard - the diseases are horrible enough, but the idea of a multi-billion dollar effort operating undetected, almost unsuspected and unprotected, for 20 years is even worse.  What might be lurking in the vastness of China, or in some isolated laboratory complex in India or Argentina?  We might find out the hard way.  The sheer information in Biohazard earns it four stars.

Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Dr Alibek stood at the pinnacle of power, both in the surviving, retooling post-Soviet Biopreparat, where he had been groomed for the highest leadership post, and in his native Kazahkstan after independence and the fall of the Soviet Union.  Instead of accepting this power and helping maintain the charade, Alibek actively turned down appointments to assume the highest posts for both health and death.  Instead, he defected, throwing away his career for an uncertain future for reasons of conscience.

What Dr Alibek did in Biopreparat, he did in the belief that he was defending his country.  Once he found the United States had been true to their word and dismantled its bioweapons program, he risked his job, even his life, to shame his colleagues into doing likewise, finally leaving Russia.

Plague Wars : A True Story of Biological Warfare

by Tom Mangold, Jeff Goldberg, Goldberg Mangold

Anthrax.  Plague.  Smallpox.  Ebola.

These are the weapons of the future - microscopic organisms produced in laboratories and unleashed on unwitting populations to reproduce, spread, and kill.  They are as deadly as atomic bombs, much cheaper to create, and much easier to distribute - inside a warhead on an intercontinental missile, in an aerosol can sprayed in a crowded building, or by a crop-duster flying over a major city.  Exposure occurs without warning.  Infection from only a few minute particles can mean a ghastly and painful death.  The kill rates are staggering.

Modern biological warfare began during the 1930s, when the Japanese Army conducted atrocious experiments on Chinese prisoners using lethal bacteria.  During the Cold War, both the Soviet Union and the US rushed to build biological weapons programs.  In 1972, the Biological Weapons Convention banned the development of bioweapons, supposedly ending the threat.  But the threat was only beginning.

Plague Wars tells the stories of the secret battles that are still being waged in many nations, stories filled with international espionage, deceptions, and treachery.  Recently, defectors and covert sources from third-world governments such as Iraq have revealed active biological weapons programs, despite international arms inspectors' attempts to eradicate them.  A US war game to prepare for a North Korean biological attack went so horribly wrong that the results are still classified.  In South Africa, the use of bioweapons represents one of the last untold secrets of the apartheid battles, while in Zimbabwe, people are still dying of anthrax from the dirty wars of independence fought two decades ago.  Fringe cults, apocalyptic madmen, and terrorists groups everywhere claim to own bioweapons, and are threatening to use them.  Major Western cities are busily planning defenses against such an attack.

The Plague Wars have begun.  Are we prepared?

Researched across four continents with exceptional access to many sources from the United Nations, US Department of Defense, and various civilian and military intelligence agencies, and using previously classified government documents, Tom Mangold and Jeff Goldberg have written the definitive account of the state of biological warfare in the world today.  Never before has the complete scope of these terrifying weapons been so thoroughly examined.

A startling look into hidden facets of history, dark secrets of the present, and the anticipated horrors of a none-too-distant future, Plague Wars will make you reconsider your safety in a world where death is just a breath away.

The Cobra Event

by Richard Preston

In New York City in the late '90s, a 17-year-old girl heads off to her private school even though she has a cold.  By art class her nose is gushing mucus and she's severely disoriented.  Within seconds, it seems, she's in convulsions and, most bizarrely, can't stop biting herself.  All the reader can do is hope she'll die quickly, but Kate Moran's body still has a few more disgusting turns to undergo, and Richard Preston - a Jacobean master of ceremonies par excellence - takes us through them in bizarre and bloody detail.

Clearly, whatever Kate had was a head cold with a scientific vengeance.  Preston's heroine, Alice Austen, a doctor with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, realises - in the first of several gripping autopsy scenes - that the girl's nervous system had been virtually destroyed.  So far, only one other person is known to have died in the same way, but he was a homeless man.  Austen must connect the two cases, seemingly linked only by the subway, before the media gets hold of them and drums up a paranoia-fest - and before the virus's creator can kill again.

The Cobra Event is itself a paranoia-fest, a provocative thriller that makes you wonder exactly how much bioterrorism is taking place in the real world.  Preston, best known for his terrifying chronicle of the Ebola virus, The Hot Zone, and other impeccably researched nonfictions, is not content to create fast-paced nightmarish scenes.  His novel is instead a complex morality tale anchored in uncomfortable fact.  Preston is keen to convey the "invisible history" of bioweapons engineering and, equally, to show the unsung heroism of his scientific detectives (along with that of the nurses and technicians who literally sacrifice their lives for medicine).  Like their creator, these characters are not without a sense of humour.  One calls the manmade virus "the ultimate head cold."  Readers will never forget literally dozens of scenes and will never again see the subway, rodents, autopsy knives, and - above all - runny noses in the same light.

Excerpt from

Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War

by Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg and William Broad

...But nothing caught the president's attention as much as The Cobra Event, the novel Venter had recommended and that Clinton read in early 1998.  It depicted a mad scientist's determination to thin the world's population by infecting New York City with a designer pathogen.  By combining smallpox, a virus similar to that of the common cold, and an insect virus that destroys nerves, the scientist invented an ideal doomsday germ - a "brainpox" that spread quickly and melted the brain.

The book opened with seventeen-year-old Kate Moran heading off to her private high school in upper Manhattan.  She had a bad cold.  By art class, her teeth were chattering and her nose was gushing.  Disoriented, she soon found herself seized by convulsions and, bizarrely, biting her own mouth.  She collapsed, her body lashing back and forth, her face twitching uncontrollably.  With classmates and a teacher standing by helplessly, she died a violent death, her spine cracking under the strain of her contracting muscles.  The psychopath behind the killings also eventually fell victim to the bug he had created.  It was a plot twist Lederberg had suggested to Preston at the outset ofhis research to make germ weapons seem less attractive to a potential terrorist.  Clinton was impressed by the book's grim narrative and apparent authenticity.  Preston's acknowledgments included more than 100 experts - military officers, intelligence analysts, doctors, scientists, and officials in Clinton's own administration, including Danzig.  The novel's science, Preston wrote in a preface, "is real or based on what is possible."

Clinton began asking his friends, cabinet members, even House Speaker Newt Gingrich whether they had read the book and what they thought about it.  After a White House meeting on another topic, the president suddenly turned to John Hamre, the deputy secretary of defense, and asked whether he could speak to him privately for a few moments.  As the two men walked into the Oval Office, Clinton said he had recently read The Cobra Event and asked Hamre whether he thought the novel's scenario was plausible.  Could a terrorist unleash an unstoppable plague with designer pathogens?

Hamre was somewhat taken aback.  He had not read the book and was no expert on superbugs or recombinant technology, he told the president.  "But I'll have 100 colonels reading the book at dawn," he promised.  Returning to the Pentagon, Hamre searched in vain for the book.  He finally borrowed the only one he could find - a copy from Secretary Cohen's private library.  The next day, Hamre delivered a preliminary assessment to the White House.  While the novel was not based on secret government data and contained no classified information, the scenario was theoretically plausible.

In February 1998, the arcane intelligence debates about Russia's biological program exploded into public view.  Ken Alibek emerged from anonymity to charge publicly what he had said in secret government debriefings: the Russians were still making sophisticated bioweapons under the guise of developing vaccines for defense.  In interviews with the New York Times and ABC's Prime Time Live, Alibek said that the Soviet Union's plans for World War III had included "hundreds of tons" of anthrax bacteria and scores of tons of smallpox and plague viruses.  And he repeated in public his controversial charge that the Soviet labs had made hybrid designer germs from Ebola and smallpox that were impervious to vaccines and antibiotics.

As Alibek stunned legislators on Capitol Hill who had not known of the defector's existence, Andy Weber was making real progress in Russia.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, thousands of scientists skilled in biological warfare found themselves unemployed or penniless.  The, demise of South Africa's apartheid system and Iraq's defeat in the Gulf War have also added to the talent pool from which weapons scientists can be recruited.  Drugs and vaccines are now made throughout the world, giving many nations the ability to manufacture germ weapons.  It took the United States and the Soviet Union more than a decade of trial and error to master the secrets in the 1950s.  Three decades later, Iraqi scientists learned how to make thousands of gallons of anthrax and botulinum in just a few years.

The contrast to nuclear weapons illustrates why many call germ weapons the "poor man's atom bomb."  A nation that obtains plans for a crude nuclear device is at the beginning of a complex technical challenge that requires staggering, easily detectable investments in mines, factories, and nuclear reactors.  But scientists like Bill Patrick or Ken Alibek say they could teach a terrorist group how to make devastating germ weapons from a few handfuls of backyard dirt and some widely available lab equipment.

The emergence of the United States as the world's most powerful nation has made biological attack more likely.  Adversaries that resent America's global dominance, envy its wealth, or fear its overwhelming military power can fight back most effectively with unconventional weapons.  The attack on the USS Cole, in which a modern warship was crippled and nearly sunk in October 2000 by a dinghy packed with explosives and detonated by suicide bombers, showed how the seemingly powerless can strike a devastating military blow.  In the coming years, those willing to die for their cause may well choose instead to become smallpox carriers or Marburg martyrs.  The pace of scientific advance has also intensified the germ threat.  Cohen and Boyer's pioneering work a quarter century ago helped give scientists new tools to improve crops and cure disease.  But genetic manipulation can also be exploited to disorient, maim, and kill.  No one can predict the recombinant future.  But for now it appears that the genetic revolution may produce few killers of the sort found in The Cobra Event, few agents such as brainpox.  In real life, the most likely danger is that classic agents, the so-called oldie moldies, will be turned into custom pathogens that can defeat drugs, antidotes, and vaccines.

Unwitting Aussies Create Killer Virus

London - Australian scientists have accidentally created a smallpox-type killer virus that wipes out its victims' immune systems, sparking fears that it could be used in biological weapons.  The virus, created during attempts to make a mouse contraceptive, does not affect humans, but could act as a blueprint for terrorists wanting to develop a similar killer for people.

The creation highlights the growing possibility that terrorists could take legitimate research published in academic journals and adapt it for evil purposes, New Scientist magazine reports.

"It's a good way to show how to alter smallpox to make it more virulent," Ken Alibek, former second-in-command of the civilian branch of the Soviet germ-warfare programme, said.

The Canberra-based researchers, Ron Jackson of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, and Ian Ramshaw of the Australian National University, consulted the Defence Department before deciding to submit their work for publication.  It will appear in the Journal of Virology next month.

"We wanted to warn the general population that this potentially dangerous technology is available," Dr Jackson said.  "We wanted to make it clear to the scientific community that they should be careful, that it is not too difficult to create severe organisms."

The researchers created the virus by inserting a gene that creates large amounts of naturally occurring molecule interleukin 4 (lL-4) into a mousepox virus.  The aim was to stimulate antibodies against mouse eggs to make the mice infertile.  The result was a deadly virus that totally suppressed the "cell-mediated response" - the arm of the immune system that combats viral infection - and wiped out all the test mice in nine days.  "It would be safe to assume that if some idiot did put human IL-4 into human smallpox they'd increase the lethality quite dramatically," Dr Jackson said.

Attempts to vaccinate the mice failed, raising fears that vaccination would be of little use if bioterrorists used the research to create a human version.

Defence experts have long been concerned about how to preserve the freedom to publish research while keeping information out of the wrong hands. - AAP

Source: The Dominion Friday 12 January 2001

See also:

bulletProspects for American Bioterrorism (in the Environment section) - Perhaps the easiest biological agent to produce is ricin, which the Bulgarian secret police used during the Cold War era to assassinate dissident Georgi Markov - he was jabbed with an infected umbrella tip while waiting for a bus in London...
bulletWhat Is Life?  Can We Make It? (in the Science section) - To what did the SUNY researchers choose to award the honour of being the first synthetic organism?  They selected a virus that scientists have spent decades trying to eradicate, a cause of human disability and death: polio...
bulletThe Anthrax Killer (earlier in this section) - I don't know what's scarier - not knowing who mailed the anthrax letters, realising that there appear to be multiple people perfectly capable, perhaps even eager, to do it, or thinking multiple scientists have been unfairly accused of this, will never be charged, and so can never be found innocent...

Remain Calm!!

Source: Funny Times December 2001

For articles on bioterrorism, patriotism enforcers, airport security, children in war, McCarthyism, humanitarian killing, Voice of America, pipelines, truth, lessons, anthrax, hatred and pain click the "Up" button below to take you to the Index page for this War on Terrorism section.

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