This column was written at about the time of the first attempt at bombing the World Trade Center. I’m republishing it untouched:
The terrorism racket grows more interesting. What with trials of terrorists in New York for the bombing of the World Trade Center, and now the fellows who were going to blow up Manhattan’s subways, things don’t look as safe as they might.
A sort of terrorism that hasn’t yet gotten a lot of attention, but may yet, is bioterrorism. Remember the Petri dishes of raspberry jello or whatever that were left outside B’Nai Brith and tied up Washington for most of a day? And that wasn’t even real.
A fellow I know is Steve Hatfill, a medical doctor with years of experience in the Third World, and therefore with the diseases to be found there. What would happen, he wonders, if terrorists, with or without the support of governments like Iraq’s, tried to use diseases as biological weapons against America? How would they do it? Is it really possible?
Steve has thought carefully about bioterrorism. He made some intriguing points. To wit:
There exist at least four reasonably distinct levels of possible biological attack. The first is the B’Nai Brith variety, in which no real organisms are used. (“Hello. This is Abdul. We have put anthrax in the food at Throckmorton Middle School.” In fact, Abdul hasn’t.) We empty public buildings for bomb threats. How about for anthrax threats? After all, sooner or later one might be real.
The second level consists in the release of real bacteria or viruses, but without the intention of infecting many people. For example, a bad guy might spray plague bacteria around the men’s room in the World Trade Center. Probably only a few people would get it, and perhaps none would die — but it would only take one plague case to shut down the entire building, especially if the bug had been sprayed on several floors. Then the call comes: “Let Ahmet loose, or we’ll do a school.”
The third level consists in trying to get a lot of people sick, and maybe dead, but not necessarily to start a self-sustaining epidemic. Anthrax spores put into the ventilation system of a movie theater would do the trick. The result would be horrendous panic even if only a hundred people got sick or died. After all, if it worked in a theater, what public place would be safe?
The fourth level consists of a self-sustaining, unstoppable epidemic sweeping the nation. While the idea makes good copy, it isn’t likely. Most serious diseases are containable or self-limiting. Some have to be transmitted by contact, which can be prevented. Others are spread by coughing, but most don’t last long outside the body, and so on. The important point is that you don’t need a raging epidemic to paralyze a city. Remember B’Nai Brith.
Hatfill points out that the comparatively high quality of American medical facilities doesn’t necessarily provide protection against even a smallish outbreak of nasty diseases. The first patients would get excellent care in the small number of places that are set up to handle such diseases. The ensuing wave of very sick people would swamp the system. They would not get good care.
How hard, really, would it be to carry out a bio-attack? Not very, says Hatfill. Culturing bacteria is easy and almost universally understood. Getting the culture past Customs would be no problem. You could almost certainly just carry it in a small bottle in your pocket. Hatfill, who is familiar with such things, showed me how to culture bacteria with supplies that can be bought at Safeway. A bright high-school student could manage it.
For that matter, nasty bugs indeed can be found wild within the US in certain animal populations that don’t transmit them to humanity. Since this isn’t a school for terrorists, I’ll let it go at that.
And, says Hatfill, spending on public health has been diverted from prevention and control of epidemics to such things as discovering why certain groups commit suicide more often than others. Rates of vaccination are down, he says. Some extraordinarily unpleasant bugs are out there. Some are old ones traveling by the most dangerous disease vector known — a Boeing 747. People here do not have the natural resistance to these that people have who life in their regions of origin. Others are emerging diseases about which little is known.
The Unites States is, he believes, becoming more, not less, vulnerable to such pathogens. Few police, in fact few people of any kind, are prepared to deal with bioterrorism. Something to think about, no?