Today an invisible threat is hanging over the major American cities. This is undermining the blissful sense of security which has been cultivated in the citizens of the only global superpower following the Cold War.
This threat, called bioterrorism, concerns a possible terrorist attack in the heart of a major American city using lethal microorganisms. Bioterrorism is America’s worst nightmare, replacing the position previously held by nuclear terror at the top of the pantheon of mass American fears.
The Americans are once again afraid; not of “the nuclear mushrooms”, but of invisible super-lethal microorganisms; not of the explosion of an atomic bomb, but of the outbreak of an epidemic that might begin with an “innocent” sneeze.
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Americans have felt vulnerable and unsafe in their own country for the first time. Within the context of this fearful climate, the “boogeyman” of bioterrorism has emerged; in fact, many consider it the greatest threat of the 21st century. Americans feel naked when faced with this new, invisible threat and they are afraid. The threat of bioterrorism has been blown to huge proportions mainly due to Hollywood films, which have presented various scenarios of psychotic criminals using viruses, toxins and poisons for political assassinations. The cultivation of a climate of panic with regard to viruses and germs is now anything but unusual in the USA.
In the summer of 2002, certain lethal cases of encephalitis caused by the “West Nile Virus”, were enough to make a country of 280 million people lose their sleep. Of course, American mass media, knowing well how to create and manage the fear of the American population, were the ones to set off a panic crisis in the country, referring to a “real epidemic”,despite the fact that a mere 29 Americans have succumbed to the dreaded “West Nile Virus” since 1999. This extreme American reaction to a virus that is not considered anything special by Africans, Arabs and Mediterranean Europeans and is transmitted by mosquitoes, causing death to a very small percentage of those infected with it, shows that supercilious America is indeed the victim of a new mass phobia: bioterrorism. Taking advantage of this profound phobia, the Bush administration has allocated billions of dollars in funds to the scientific, medical, pharmaceutical and military industries of the country in order to find ways to address bioterrorism and to protect the population in the event of a mass-scale bio-attack.
Bioterrorism in the USA
Even though the American mass media only began referring to the threat of a biological terrorist attack after the September 11, 2001 disaster, bioterrorism is not a new phenomenon.
The United States had been worrying about a potential bio-attack long before the terrorist strike of September 11. Realising that the prospect alone of releasing a dangerous microorganism, such as the Anthrax bacillus, was enough to get people to panic, it is certain that Islamic terrorists , sooner or later, will give in to the temptation to exploit the use of biological weapons for extortion purposes or even for “blind strikes”. Therefore, in order to confront this possibility, readiness exercises have taken place in certain American cities in order to deal with a hypothetical biological attack. However, the sight of agitated marines in “space suits” running around the streets of New York justifiably caused people to panic.
Following September 11, 2001, domestic bioterrorism through the mailing of anthrax letters cost the lives of 5 people, infected another 12 and caused huge financial losses and chaos at post offices and the administrative machine of the United States. A $2.5 million bounty was set for the “biological Unabomber”, i.e. half the bounty amount for Osama Bin Laden. In the end, the culprit proved to be an American biologist.
However, the USA is not entirely defenseless against a biological attack. In regard to anthrax, in particular, the US Army and the FBI possess a bio-tracking device that can detect the germ within 20 seconds and immediately sound an alarm. The USA also has equipment (masks and uniforms), antibiotics and inoculation doses, as well as an extended laboratory network where microorganisms are studied for the speedy production of antidotes.
In August 2002, the American Congress decided to make $6 billion available to protect the population of the USA from potential bioterrorism attacks. On February 5, 2002, President Bush, who holds shares in companies producing vaccines, attended an exercise which used networks to monitor and move infected patients in a timely fashion. He observed the management of a potential epidemic outbreak, with the analysis of clinical information of 1,000 patients in 17 different hospitals. Before September 11, 2001, the American government spent less than $1.5 billion for protection against biological attacks. After that, the government decided to increase bio-protection funds to 10 billion dollars for the next two years. The goal is to have enough vaccine to inoculate the entire American population. The need to produce and store vaccines against smallpox has also been stressed by Richard Preston, the renowned author of The Hot Zone and Cobra Event, two books which shocked American public opinion by referring to the possibility of an Ebola outbreak in Washington DC and a Bioterrorism attack on New York.
Today, more than 1,400 research institutes, universities, medical schools and health centres in America are involved in research of and protection from bio-attacks. Many of these laboratories in the US research into the action and lethal capacity of microorganisms which could be used illegally as potential military biological weapons. The USAMRIID (United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases), situated in a remote corner of Maryland, is a true “virus fortress”. Behind barbwire fences and cameras monitoring everything on a 24-hour basis is a building made of concrete and steel, without any windows, where all kinds of known microorganisms and samples of all biological weapons manufactured by the US from 1960 to date are stored. The American face of the biological nightmare might be the most terrifying of all.
Secret biological wars
The first reference to “biological weapons” comes from the distant year of 1346, when the Tatars would catapult the bodies of plague victims into the besieged city of Caffa (Crimea). American Indians are said to have been purposefully infected with the smallpox virus, which was transmitted to them via infected blankets. It is estimated that, during World War I, 20% of soldiers on the Western Front were killed by chemical gas, a relative of biological weapons.
The Japanese also undertook methodic research on biological weapons in Manchuria during the 1930s, studying the effects of bubonic plague, anthrax, botulism (botulin toxin), brucellosis, cholera, smallpox and typhus on unfortunate Chinese prisoners whom they used as guinea pigs. They also experimented with martial applications of pathogenic microorganisms by constructing ceramic “bombs” that contained infected fleas. They tried to use these primitive biological bombs against the Chinese, but an unexpected shift in wind direction caused the polluted air to reverse on them, causing the death of 10,000 Japanese soldiers. When Japan lost the war and signed a peace treaty with the United States, it was “punished” by being made to relinquish all its biological data to the USA.
During World War II, Britain developed anthrax stems in order to pollute the Germany’s livestock. In fact, large quantities of vaccines were stored in case the Germans attacked first. On the tiny island of Gruinard, Scotland, where sheep were sprayed with anthrax during 1942-43, the bacillus spores remained active until 1987.
The Soviets implemented many research programmes for the production of lethal microorganisms. In 1979, an explosion took place in the infamous biological weapon research and manufacturing facilities in Sverdlovsk. More than 1,000 people died, suffering from very high fever. In 1977, “virus hunters” of the American CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) met with four Soviet “scientists” in Lybia, who had been sent there to do research in “Lassa fever”, a kind of hemorrhagic fever caused by a virus that belongs to the same virus family as Marburg and Ebola. As it turned out, the Soviets were not biologists, but agents who simply wanted to take samples. This constitutes more evidence of military uses of viruses. The KGB also used lethal microorganisms to eliminate targets. In 1978, Georgi Markov, an exiled Bulgarian journalist, was the victim of a biological attack; he was pierced by an umbrella tip containing an extremely potent toxin named ricin. He died within a few hours. In 1994, Western secret services reported that Russia was still secretly trying to develop biological weapons, aiming at developing a “super-epidemic” for which there would be no antidote. In the spring of 1998, the Russians destroyed hundreds of tons of anthrax, a quantity sufficient to wipe out the human population of the globe many times over. The Russians still possess a large quantity of anthrax spores.
Americans began their biological weapon research in the early 1930s. In his book The United States and Biological Warfare: Secrets From the Early Cold War, Stephen Endicott records the American face of the nightmare. According to the book, Winston Churchill wanted to “wipe out” the Germans since 1944, using approximately 500,000 US-manufactured anthrax bombs. The USA, which accused Japanese World War II generals of war crimes, for using Chinese prisoners in Manchuria as guinea pigs in biological experiments, utilized the results of Japanese research in order to develop a biological arsenal for their own use. After the end of World War II, the victorious US also collected relevant data from biological research conducted by the defeat Germans. In 1951, the US Air Force added “crop destruction” bombs to its arsenal. A short while later, communist North Korea accused America of using biological weapons during the Korean War (1953-1956). American research continued at Fort Detrick, Maryland, where, during the 1960s, more than 60,000 animals were killed during biological weapon experiments every month! During the same period, the biological arsenal comprised three lethal germ strains, the main one being the anthrax bacillus. The arsenal also included four less lethal microbe strains, i.e. those of brucellosis, Q fever, Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus and B enterotoxin. At the same time, dozens of other microbes and germs were being studied, the goal being their military application. All these hazardous microorganisms were supposed to have been destroyed between 1971 and 1973, according to the Biological Weapons Convention (1972). In reality, their production continued covertly, under the pretense of research for the production of antibiotics, vaccines and antidotes. Officially, America denies that it is still developing biological weapons and claims that its attention is focused exclusively on addressing bioterrorism.
The arsenal of terror
Humanity is being ushered into the 21st century in the worst conceivable way due to the threat of bioterrorism. A special committee of the American Congress estimated that at least $200 million is required (not including the necessary hard-to-find materials, infrastructure and specialized scientists) for a country or organization to construct a nuclear bomb. Furthermore, millions of millions of dollars and the corresponding infrastructure are required to create a simple chemical arsenal. However, in order to set up a comprehensive biological arsenal, no more than 10 million dollars is required.
Evidence presented in 1969, during a pertinent discussion at the UN, states that “for a large-scale operation against civilians”, the cost amounts to $2,000 per square kilometer with conventional weapons, $800 with nuclear weapons, $600 with nerve-gas weapons, and $1 with biological weapons"! The cost is too low to act as a deterrent. This is the main reason why biological weapons are considered to be a poor country’s “nuclear arsenal”, much more so than chemical weapons.
This, of course, occurs at the level of states that plan to use “biological substances” banned by the military. However, would-be bioterrorists can achieve their goals with far fewer materials. Today, creating a biological weapon that could spread death and panic in a major city is not impossible. A would-be bioterrorist could release a lethal microorganism, such as anthrax spores, by using crop dusting at a low altitude, polluting water supply networks or channeling microorganisms through ventilation systems. All one needs is to possess knowledge in biology or chemistry, a 25 m2 area and $10,000-worth of equipment. Now let’s take a look at the biological terror arsenal.
Anthrax is one of the most well known types of biological weapons. Bacillus Anthracis is considered by many to be the perfect biological weapon because its infectious spores are very resistant and can survive for an extended period of time after they have been released. They can spread over long distances (up to 100 kilometres) and only a small amount of them is enough to prove fatal. Anthrax spores enter the human body either through inhalation or through the pores of the skin. When the spores enter the lungs they grow rapidly (multiply) and produce fatal toxins. The incubation period is approximately 4-7 days. The symptoms are insidious and resemble those of a common cold. About 20% of infected cases will result in death (mainly from blood poisoning). On the positive side, anthrax is not contagious and can be treated with the antibiotic Cipro (Ciprofloxacin Hydrochloride). A vaccine against anthrax has been developed and all American soldiers are subjected to compulsory inoculation against the virus.
Smallpox is caused by the Variola Major virus. The last case was recorded in Somalia in 1977, and in 1980 the medical world declared that smallpox had been eradicated. However there is fear that samples of the virus were kept in laboratories to be used as biological weapons. Variola virus has an overall fatality rate of about 30% while a variation of it known as “black smallpox” is fatal by 95%. The incubation period of the virus is about 12 days (but can range from 7 to 17 days). Symptoms include high fever, malaise, tiredness and severe headache and backache. Next it infects the vital organs, a rash appears, the organs are destroyed and finally the patient dies. Those that manage to come through the acute phase of the disease (70% of the cases) need 3 to 4 weeks for full recovery.
The variola virus is highly contagious and it can be easily transmitted from person to person by infected droplets carried through the air in the same way as the common flu virus. Those infected are more contagious during the first week because the virus is present in great quantities in their saliva. The patient is contagious until the last smallpox scab falls off.
Obligatory inoculations with vaccinia, a “live virus vaccine” against smallpox, ceased in 1972. Those vaccinated retained their immunity against the virus until 1987. Today nobody is immune to smallpox. There is however, a small amount of smallpox vaccines stored. The United States have a stockpile of 75 million doses, in their effort to reorganise the country’s biodefence. Meanwhile, researchers are looking into new antiviral drugs, new treatment options and support services for the patients. It is estimated that fatal complications of the vaccine can occur in approximately 1 per million vaccinations and for this reason the vaccine is administered only in the case of an epidemic.
The plague is a contagious disease which affects humans and animals and is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. The bacterium lives in rats and is then transmitted to humans through infected fleas. The plague is considered one of the most infamous infectious diseases in the history of mankind and is known as “black death”. In the 14th century the Black Death killed 1/3 of Europe's population. Nowadays the plague is rare, although the risk of contracting the disease still remains especially in third world countries. Between 1980 and 1994, 18.738 cases of the plague were recorded and it is estimated that the disease affects 1000 people every year.
There are three types of plague: bubonic, septicaemic and pneumonic. The last one is the most deadly. Pneumonic plague is transmitted from person to person through infected droplets in the air and is considered the “perfect” biological weapon. The symptoms appear 2-4 days after infection. Patients usually have fever, headache, malaise, rapidly developing pneumonia with shortness of breath and bloody sputum.
If the infection is not treated early the patient may die. Antibiotic treatment (streptomycin, gentamicin, tetracyclines, and chloramphenicol) must be administered within 24 hours of the first symptoms. As a precautionary measure antibiotics are administered for 7 days to all those who come in close contact with the patients. Preventive vaccination takes place only if a major epidemic occurs.
Botulism is caused by a toxin made by a bacterium called Clostridium botulinum which enters the human body through inhalation or by eating foods that contain the botulism toxin. Within 1-5 days the toxin causes paralysis of the breathing muscles and cardiac arrest. The symptoms begin 12-36 hours after infection but onset of illness may take several days if the toxin is present in low doses. Symptoms include blurry vision, dry mouth, difficulty in swallowing and dyspnea. As this toxin is hard to diagnose, it is ideal for bioterrorist attacks, especially via crop dusting. There is also a vaccine against the disease.
Tularemia is an infection caused by a resistant bacterium (Francisell tularensis) which is found in animals (especially in rodents and hares). There are several different ways that people can become infected with tularemia (being bitten by an infected insect, eating contaminated food or simply breathing in the bacteria). Symptoms of tularemia include high fever, chills, headache, muscle aches, dry mouth, progressive weakness. Those patients where the disease develops into pneumonia can exhibit chest pain, bloody sputum or suddenly stop breathing. The symptoms appear 3-5 days after exposure to the bacterium. Tularemia is not known to be spread from person to person. People who have tularemia do not need to be isolated, but those who have been exposed to the tularemia bacteria should be treated as soon as possible. The disease can be fatal if it is not treated with the right antibiotics. There is a vaccination for tularemia but it is not compulsory.
Lassa fever is an ilness caused by a virus which is endemic in West Africa. The illness was discovered in 1969 when two missionary nurses died in Nigeria. The cause of the illness was found to be the Lassa virus, named after the town in Nigeria where the first cases originated. The virus, a member of the Arenaviridae family, is a retrovirus ( RNA) and is animal-borne (zoonotic virus). When the infection is mild there are no symptoms in about 80% of cases. The remaining 20% however develop a severe multisystem disease with a fatality rate that can reach 50%.
The Lassa fever is an endemic disease in West Africa where it affects 100,000 to 300,000 people every year, causing approximately 5,000 deaths. It is estimated that in Sierra Leone and in Liberia 15% of people admitted to hospitals are infected with the disease. The host, of the Lassa virus is a rodent of the Mastomys genus. People get infected through contact with the urine and feces of the rodent. Because Mastomys rodents often live in and around homes they often contaminate human food. Lassa fever may also spread through person-to-person contact. (Direct transmission)
The Symptoms of the Lassa fever typically occur 1-3 weeks after the patient comes into contact with the virus. These include fever, retrosternal pain, sore throat, cough, vomiting, conjunctivitis, proteinuria etc. Neurological problems have also been observed, including loss of hearing, tremors, and encephalitis. Because the symptoms of Lassa fever are so varied and non-specific, clinical diagnosis is often difficult. Safe diagnosis is most often done by using the enzyme ELISA, which detects the antigens of the virus. The virus can also be detected in a laboratory using a method known as RT-PCR, however, this method is primarily a research tool.
The most common complication of Lassa fever is deafness. Approximately 15%-20% of patients hospitalized for Lassa fever die from the illness. However, overall only about 1% of infections with Lassa virus result in death. Ribavirin, an antiviral drug, was used with success in Lassa fever patients. It has been shown to be most effective when given early in the course of the illness. To prevent the virus from spreading in the hospitals the use of masks, gloves, gowns, and goggles as well as the isolation of infected patients is recommended. Research is presently under way to develop a vaccine for Lassa fever.
Viral hemorrhagic fevers: Ebola, Marburg
Ebola and Marburg are retroviruses (RNA) of the filovirus family. Viruses that belong in this family have similar morphology, density and the same electrochemical profile (SDS-PAGE). Although they vary greatly in shape they usually exhibit in a U- shape configuration. Their length is 14,000nm and their diameter 80nm.
Marburg hemorrhagic fever is a rare type of hemorrhagic fever which affects both humans and non-human primates. Marburg virus was first recognized in 1967, when an outbreak of hemorrhagic fever occurred simultaneously in Marburg, Frankfurt (Germany) and in Belgrade. A total of 32 people became ill; including laboratory workers. The people infected had been exposed to African green monkeys which were being used as “guinea pigs” in polio vaccine development. The monkeys were imported from Uganda. Recorded cases of the disease are rare, and have appeared in only a few locations. No other case was recorded until 1975, when a traveller became ill in Zimbabwe. Since then only some sporadic cases have been recorded. The last outbreak occurred in Durba (The Democratic Republic of the Congo).
Ebola virus (Ebola HF) causes hemorrhagic fever in humans and nonhuman primates (monkeys, gorillas, and chimpanzees). It was initially recognised in 1976 after an outbreak which occurred in a missionary hospital in Zaire. There are four identified subtypes of Ebola virus. Three of the four have caused disease in humans: Ebola-Zaire, Ebola-Sudan, and Ebola-Ivory Coast. The fourth, Ebola-Reston, infects only nonhuman primates. The virus is indigenous to Africa. Sporadic cases of Ebola HF have been reported in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zaire Gabon, Sudan, the Ivory Coast and Uganda. Infections with Ebola virus are acute. So far, there is no effective treatment. Because the natural reservoir of the virus is an unknown animal, human transmission can not be prevented. People can be exposed to Ebola virus from direct contact with the blood and/or secretions of an infected person.
In a hospital the virus can be spread through infected medical tools. Biosafety Level 4 is required to avoid transmission.
The incubation period of Ebola HF ranges from 2 to 21 days. The symptoms are similar with those of the Marburg hemorrhagic fever. At the latest stage the eyes of the patients become red and they die from profuse internal bleeding. Researchers do not understand why some people are able to recover from Ebola HF and others are not. The reason might be that their immune system developed a significant immune response to the virus.
The disease is diagnosed using the same methods as in the case of Marburg virus. Diagnosis is important in order to isolate the people infected. For the time being there is no standard treatment. Patients receive fluids, electrolytes and oxygen to maintain their status. Death rates of those infected exceed 80%. Ebola virus is considered a big threat for human health and research for the development of the appropriate vaccine is under way.
Hendra and Nipah viruses
Hendra virus (formerly called equine morbillivirus) is a member of the family Paramyxoviridae. It was first isolated in 1994 from specimens obtained during an outbreak of a respiratory and neurologic disease in horses and humans in Hendra, a suburb of Brisbane, Australia. Nipah virus, also a member of the family Paramyxoviridae, was isolated in 1999 upon examining samples from an outbreak of encephalitis among adult men in Malaysia and Singapore.
The natural reservoir for Hendra virus is a bat of the genus Pteropus found in Australia. The natural reservoir for Nipah virus is still under investigation, but one of the basic suspects is a bat from Indonesia. Humans become ill after exposure to sputum and excretions of infected animals. Both viruses cause encephalitis in humans characterized by high fever, headaches and drowsiness. Illness with Nipah virus begins with 3-14 days of fever and headache. This is followed by drowsiness and disorientation characterized by mental confusion. These signs and symptoms can progress to coma within 24-48 hours. About 40% of the patients die from the disease. The antiviral drug ribavirin has shown some efficacy against the virus. No vaccine has yet been developed.
Synthetic viruses: the “clever” biological weapons of the future
Apart from the types we mentioned before, the biological terror arsenal includes Q fever (Coxiella burnetii), Staphylococcal enterotoxin B, epidemic typhus (Rickettsia prowazekii), Ricin toxin, psittacosis (Chlamydia psittaci), etc. It can also include new pathogenic microorganisms created in labs with the aid of biotechnology and genetic engineering.
Since 1992, five new technologies that can be used for the manufacturing of new biological weapons have emerged: Genetic engineering, gene and protein fusion, cellular fusion (creation of new organisms), protein engineering and, finally, fermentation and cellular culture (mass production techniques). These revolutionary technologies offer new possibilities both to prospective bioterrorists and to the American Empire that would like its arsenal to include super-developed “smart” biological weapons able to eliminate uncontrollable terrorists, as well as undesired populations.
The creation of artificial viruses that do not exist in Nature is the first step. According to a report by American researchers published in the scientific magazine Science, efforts to create a synthetic polio virus in laboratory conditions have been successful. The scientific team of the State University of New York at Stony Brook has managed to create the infectious agent early on, using the gene sequence of polio virus genetic material. The scientists then injected guinea pigs, in an effort to determine the virulence of the artificial virus. Mice affected with the synthetic virus initially showed signs of paralysis and then died. This proved that the synthetic virus was as effective as the natural one.
The publication of this achievement set off, as expected, fears of a potential bioterrorist attack using artificial viruses. For their part, scientists claimed that they simply wanted to prove how easy it was to create an artificial virus. This, of course, might lead potential terrorists to pursue the “resurrection” of the extinct smallpox virus.
In the future, apart from artificial viruses, there will also be the possibility of creating “cyberinsects” and “biorobots” to be used as biological carriers so as to transmit pathogenic microorganisms. It is certain that future bioterrorists will succumb to the temptation of utilizing the opportunities offered by the development of genetic engineering. On the other hand, the Empire will possess a plethora of antidotes and vaccines, as well as an invisible army of “intelligent” artificial microorganisms that will exclusively target insubordinate and unwanted individuals. In the future, biochemical terror will have an imperial face. Bioterrorism is merely the perfect pretense for intimidating and controlling the masses.