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Bioterror: a ticking time bomb

By Peter Curson - posted Friday, 12 May 2017


There is little doubt that the release of a biological agent into an Australian community would be a disaster and would raise a host of questions that lie at the very heart of life and public health.

While Australia has a range of Emergency Management Plans for epidemics and disasters, a wide range of critical questions are not well addressed. These include, to whom limited supplies of vaccine might be delivered and how this might be achieved.

Such plans also tell us very little about civil rights and liberties during times of biological crisis or how human reaction, fear and hysteria might be addressed.

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Bioterrorism remains a crucial issue for our world. Research in science and biotechnology over the last decade has enabled not only advances in medicine and public health, but has also increased the availability of a wide range of pathogens as well as technologies that can be used to spread disease agents among vulnerable populations.

Since terrorists attacked the US on September 11 2001 our attention has been increasingly drawn to the risk of a bioterror incident. The cornerstone of US efforts to prevent the proliferation and use of biological weapons rests with the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) which banned the development, production, acquisition and use of biological weapons.

Over the last 45 years the BWC has been successfully undermined by numerous violations and by its failure to enlist the support of all nations. The Soviets, for example, have had a major biological weapons program for many years maintaining some of the world’s largest and most advanced bioweapons facilities housing a number of virulent viruses including smallpox, anthrax and ebola.

North Korea also has had an active biological weapons program, stockpiling many biochemical agents including mustard gas, sarin and anthrax. By 2016 North Korea is thought to have stockpiled up to 5,000 tons of biochemical agents including mustard gas, sarin and anthrax.

Equally disturbing is the fact that many developing countries have poorly secured biological laboratories and bio-culture holdings. Despite this, a major hurdle for terrorists seeking to obtain biological weapons remains the difficulty of acquiring such agents. Although some dangerous pathogens such as anthrax can be isolated from natural sources, it remains much simpler for terrorists or rogue states to simply buy or steal such material.

 Concern over the release of a biological agent has heightened in recent years. The sarin incident in the Tokyo subway, the anthrax incident in the US, the ricin incident in Britain, the widespread use of chemical weapons during the Iraq-Iran war and in March and April of this year when Isis launched two biochemical attacks in Mosul, are all examples.

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Further, a laptop captured from an Isis base in North Syria contained detailed plans of how terrorists in Syria and Iraq were investigating the use of bubonic plague as a bioterrorist agent. Many now believe that a bioterrorist attack against a large urban population is inevitable.

While the likelihood of such an incident may seem remote in New Zealand or Australia, some believe that it is simply a matter of time before we are confronted by such an event. The impact of such an attack was vividly brought home by the US Dark Winter Project in 2001 which modelled the effects of a covert aerosol release of smallpox in three US shopping malls. Within two months it was estimated that there could be more than three million cases of smallpox and one million deaths.

But why smallpox, when the disease was eradicated many years ago? Well, it would appear that a number of countries continue to retain stocks of the disease and some have experimented to produce more lethal varieties.

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About the Author

Peter Curson is Emeritus Professor of Population and Health in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Macquarie University.

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