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Bioterrorism: A View from the Side Oleg S. Morenkov * Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Cell Biophysics I work as head of a group at the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Cell Biophysics in Pushchino, one of the leading biological research centers of Russia. My work there has been associated with the study of the regulation of monoclonal antibody synthesis by hybridized cells. I have a Ph.D. in molecular biology and a doctor of science degree in virology, and my dissertation focused on the antigen structure of the glycoproteins of the Aujeszky's disease (pseudo- rabies) virus and the development of serological methods for diagnosing this disease. The Aujeszky's disease virus is a porcine alphaherpesvirus and causes widespread disease in many types of animals, but not in humans. At present, my work is devoted to the study of molecular mechanisms of interaction of the Aujeszky's disease virus with cell plasma membranes. My research work has never had and does not now have any relation to the development of biological weapons. I have never been involved in the problem of bioterrorism. Furthermore, I have not even taken an interest in this problem. Recently I was invited to make a presentation at a Russian-American semi- nar on bioterrorism, to look at the threat of bioterrorism to Russia and the world from the viewpoint of a virologist who has never had any relation to the develop- ment of biological weapons, from the standpoint of a scientist living in Russia who is well acquainted with the current status of biology in Russia. I was invited to present my own subjective views on this problem, and I accepted. Thus, the report that I am presenting is a view of bioterrorism from the side, the view of a nonspecialist in this field who has never been connected with * Translated from the Russian by Kelly Robbins. 106
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BIOLOGICAL TERRORISM 107 biological weapons, the view of a virologist living in Russia and possessing a certain amount of special knowledge. Any scientific-technical progress leads to the development of not only posi- tive, but also negative technologies. This leads to improvements not only in the means of supporting life, but also in the means of destroying it. The development of chemistry led to the creation of explosive and poisonous substances, of phys- ics to nuclear weapons, and of biology to biological weapons. Biological weapons will undoubtedly be very attractive to terrorists of the twenty-first century. In the opinion of specialists, it is already pointless to ask the question, Will terrorist acts be committed using biological weapons? Instead, we face the questions, When will it happen? How can the consequences of such terrorist acts be minimized? How can we reduce the probability that terrorists will use biological weapons? It seems that bioterrorism is an evil we will have to encounter in the near future, and the entire world community will have to fight it with united efforts. In my view, the attractiveness of biological weapons for modern terrorists is determined by the following points: 1. We are currently seeing the explosive development of biological science, medical biotechnology, and pharmacology. Increasing numbers of people are working in these fields, and they have the knowledge and qualifications neces- sary for developing and manufacturing bioweapons. There are also increasing numbers of laboratories and biological and pharmacological production facilities that have the conditions necessary for the production of biological weapons. 2. There is free access to information concerning the manufacture of bio- weapons (the culture of viruses and microorganisms, the production of toxins, etc.~. Access to this sort of information has become much simpler with the devel- opment of the Internet. Even with minimal specialized knowledge, such infor- mation is fairly easy to find. 3. The manufacture of biological weapons is relatively easy and cheap. If one has the appropriate strain of a pathogenic virus or microorganism, the patho- gen can be cultivated in sufficient quantities without any particular problems in any laboratory possessing facilities for work under sterile conditions. Such con- ditions are easy enough to create, even at home. 4. The problem of obtaining a pathogenic strain of a microorganism or virus is also solvable, although it might appear to be one of the most difficult problems for bioterrorists. A pathogen might be obtained by bioterrorists by illegal means from laboratories or production facilities where these microorganisms or viruses are being studied or where the corresponding vaccines or test kits are being manufactured. A pathogenic viral or microbial strain could be transferred to bioterrorists by another terrorist group. The important point to remember is that at present, international borders are completely open for the movement of patho- genic strains of microorganisms and viruses. This could happen in the form of an
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108 HIGH-IMPACT TERRORISM ordinary letter or sheet of paper containing a dried drop of a pathogenic strain. Viruses can be transported in the form of a dried nucleic acid, which presents absolutely no danger to the person transporting the virus. Once at the destination, cells are transfected with the nucleic acid, and the full-fledged virus multiplies. Thus, a pathogenic strain could be obtained in one place and biomass produced from it in somewhere else, even in another country. If bioterrorists were to develop their own strain using current molecular biological methods, it would require substantial expenditures, and at present I believe this to be unlikely, although possible. 5. Bioweapons are effective in very small doses. The ease of concealing the presence and use of bioweapons, the lack of external evidence at the moment of their use, and the relative ease of their production make it highly unlikely that they could be found and suppressed. 6. Biological weapons make it possible to carry out both individual terrorist acts and mass infections of people, animals, and plants. 7. In my view, the task facing bioterrorists is substantially easier than that faced by the developers of military bioweapons for use under battle conditions. An act of bioterrorism is unexpected. No one is taking countermeasures against it, and it is carried out openly, aimed at unprepared and unprotected people. I believe that the demands made of bioweapons by bioterrorists are significantly lower than the demands made of military bioweapons. Considered ineffective under battle conditions, bioweapons could be very attractive for bioterrorists. Bioterrorists have no need to resolve the problem of stabilizing biological agents or cultivating enormous quantities of them. Even "nonmilitarized" pathogens are sufficient for carrying out an act of bioterrorism. 8. At present, there is practically no technology for protecting against bio- weapons that would make it possible to detect and identify a pathogenic micro- organism or toxin before it began taking effect. Thus, the fact that an act of bioterrorism had been committed could be discovered only after the victims began to get sick and the illness was identified, which could take a fairly long time, during which a large number of people, animals, or plants could already have become infected. 9. A difficult point in uncovering a case of bioterrorism is the fact that after an outbreak of a certain disease is discovered, it is very hard to say anything about the etiology of the disease. Therefore, if the act of bioterrorism is not of a demonstrative nature and is not announced by the bioterrorists themselves, it is no simple matter to confirm that the premeditated spread of a pathogen has taken place. This is especially true with regard to the spread of diseases affecting animals and plants. 10. Society is neither technically nor psychologically ready for cases of bioterrorism. Therefore, the relative simplicity of producing biological weapons, the prac- tical invulnerability of the perpetrators, and the possibility of the spread of dis-
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BIOLOGICAL TERRORISM 109 ease on a huge scale obviously make biological weapons one of the most attrac- tive tools for terror in the twenty-first century. All types of bioterrorism are dangerous, whether based on political, crimi- nal, religious, or economic reasons or carried out by mentally ill people. In these various cases, the terrorists are pursuing different goals: · Criminal bioterrorism will obviously be aimed at specific people or groups of people with the aim of eliminating or blackmailing them; that is, it will be of a localized nature. . Religious fanatics, separatists, and mentally ill people could probably be attracted by the demonstrative aspect of bioterrorism. Bioterrorism of this type could obviously be of a localized nature or could take the form of a wide-scale terrorist act, which, with good planning on the part of the extremists and the necessary equipment and supplies, could lead to large numbers of victims. · Bioterrorism could become a means of resolving political problems and destabilizing countries, especially those with already unstable political systems and economies. Terrorist acts involving the widespread release of dangerous human pathogens (smallpox, anthrax) in crowded areas could potentially lead to huge numbers of human casualties and enormous economic costs involved in dealing with the consequences, which could destabilize the situation in a coun- try. This type of bioterrorism is technically the most difficult and requires the dispersion of pathogens in aerosol form. It is necessary to solve numerous tech- nical problems to carry out such an act of terrorism (stabilization of the bioag- ents, development of a dispersal system, etc.), and it requires a long development period and large investments of money. In the opinion of a number of experts, such a wide-scale act of bioterrorism is unlikely in the near future, if it is not purposefully sponsored by a government that could provide terrorist groups with the finished technology for manufacturing bioweapons. . Neither can one underestimate economic bioterrorism (the spread of dis- eases affecting animals and plants). This might serve as a means of waging a competitive economic struggle (including on a scale involving competition be- tween countries). In such a case, certain agricultural sectors could suffer enor- mous losses, which could lead to destabilization of the countries affected. In the majority of cases, the very fact that such an act of bioterrorism had been carried out could go unnoticed if it is not announced by the terrorists themselves. In my view, the main factor restraining the spread of bioterrorism is the lack up to now of a sufficiently wide-scale successful act of bioterrorism receiving worldwide attention. Two or three successful acts of bioterrorism, regardless of the country in which they occurred, could change the orientation of terrorists throughout the world and encourage them to actively seek capabilities for using biological weapons for criminal purposes.
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110 HIGH-IMPACT TERRORISM What, in my view, are the special characteristics of the situation in Russia with regard to bioterrorism? . In Russia, there are a large number of institutes and production facilities of a biological, medical, and pharmacological nature. Many of them are in a difficult financial position and sit half empty, rented out to private firms. The laboratory facilities of such institutes and plants could potentially be used by bioterrorist groups to cultivate pathogenic viruses and microorganisms. · Russia has a large number of specialists virologists, microbiologists, molecular biologists with the skills sufficient to be used by bioterrorists for making and developing bioweapons. Some of these specialists are still working in their professional fields and often live on the verge of poverty. Some of them were retrained and now work in other sectors. Here I would like to emphasize that the majority of these specialists were never associated with the development of bioweapons under the old program and are (or were) working on basic or applied science. Given the poor situation of many scientists working in biology, there is a potential danger that they will be used by criminal elements or terrorist organiza- tions, including those from third countries, in the manufacture of bioweapons. A pathogen can be obtained from any country. There is a potential danger that these pathogens could also be acquired in Russia itself through people with access to pathogenic strains of microorganisms or viruses (for example, people involved in related scientific research or in the production of vaccines or diag- nostic tests). For a certain amount of compensation, specialists could cultivate biomass, possibly without even guessing which microorganism or virus they were cultivating. Russian biologists also could potentially be used by bioterrorists in the de- velopment of bioweapons. Despite the difficult situation in Russian science, biological scientists, especially those working in the area of basic science, con- tinue to maintain their high status and to conduct world-class research. Take, for example, a recently published study by Australian researchers that attracted worldwide notice. These researchers cloned the interleukin-4 gene in mouse pox virus and, as a result, unexpectedly obtained a virus substantially more virulent than the initial strain. It is highly probable that cloning such a gene in human smallpox virus could lead to the appearance of a terrible bioweapon. In my view, it would be no particular problem to repeat this work or to insert the interleukin- 4 gene in another virus. The work used standard molecular biology methods. Such work could be carried out in many Russian biological institutes, as well as in American universities. Terrorists might plan their work in such a way that one team of specialists clones the virus sequence and another the interleukin gene, a third group makes the recombinant virus, and a fourth tests the virus on animals. None of the researchers could even guess the aim of the work.
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BIOLOGICAL TERRORISM 111 · The next important point concerns Russia's lack of modern detection equipment and the associated methodology, thus complicating the possibility of finding pathogenic agents before the moment of their use. · Russian medical institutions are not prepared to work under conditions that would be produced by bioterrorist actions. Judging from the literature, this problem is also a concern in the United States. There are no specialists trained for such cases, no modern diagnostic methods or equipment for pathogen identi- fication, and no stockpiles of the appropriate vaccines and antibiotics. In this regard, however, it should be noted that an expert analysis of the current level of preparedness of other countries for acts of bioterrorism shows that, at present, not a single country in the world is fully prepared to take ade- quate actions in such a situation. A well-planned and successfully conducted wide-scale act of bioterrorism in any country would unavoidably lead to heavy casualties (or enormous damage to agriculture). The scope of the consequences will depend on the preparedness of the government, both technical and econom- ic, for terrorist acts of this nature. Given Russia's economic weakness and its poor technical preparedness for dealing with the consequences of bioterrorism, a wide-scale bioterrorist attack carried out on Russian soil would in high likelihood produce an unfavorable scenario that might lead to a large number of casualties, social tension, and a destabilization of the situation. Thus, Russia finds itself in a situation characterized on the one hand by favorable conditions for terrorist groups to make or even develop bioweapons and on the other hand by a lack of preparedness to counter a bioterrorist act if it is committed. In taking all of this into account, it seems to me that Russia could potentially become one of the top places for the manufacture of bioweapons by terrorists (including bioterrorism from other countries). Russia could also be- come one of the main proving grounds for the testing of bioweapons in terrorist or criminal actions. This cannot be permitted. Having organized the production of bioweapons or having successfully carried out a bioterrorist act in Russia, where it is now easier to do, terrorists will move on to other countries as well. Russia must become part of the international system for countering bioter- rorism. Given Russia's economic problems, it needs help to create an effective system for combating bioterrorism. This is in the interests of the entire world community. In order to fight bioterrorism, the international community needs to resolve a three-part problem: 1. Society must recognize the seriousness and reality of the problem of bioterrorism. Society has not yet recognized this fact. I fear that society will have to encounter bioterrorism face to face in order to recognize the scale of the danger fully. In this situation, scientists must play the role of experts, who must
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2 HIGH-IMPACT TERRORISM convince governments and society as a whole of the need to take appropriate measures. 2. Society must build a system of barriers to block acts of bioterrorism and reduce the likelihood of their being carried out. 3. In case an act of bioterrorism is nevertheless carried out, society must build a system of effective measures that will make it possible to minimize the consequences of these terrorist acts. Since preventing terrorist acts is very diffi- cult, it seems to me that minimizing their consequences should be a top priority. I will not discuss issues pertaining to the organization of an international system for countering bioterrorism. This is a difficult and complex problem involving a number of fields in which I am not a specialist. I will convey a few more thoughts concerning the potential use by bioterrorists of individual Russian biologists in the manufacture or development of bioweapons on the orders of bioterrorists. It seems to me that the poverty of Russian biological science is the fundamental reason creating the preconditions for the potential use of Russian biologists by bioterrorists for criminal purposes. World-class specialists earn salaries of $50 to $100 per month. It is hard to maintain your dignity when you are poverty stricken. In order to earn money, scientists take various side jobs not connected with their basic scientific activities cloning, sequencing, cultivating biomass, or obtaining recombinant viruses for those who pay them. In doing so, they often have no interest in exactly what they are doing or for what purpose or whom they are doing it. One of the many side jobs being done by Russian scientists could turn out to be an element of work to develop or manufacture a bioweapon. As I have already emphasized, specialists could carry out this work without even having a clue. In my view, the most effective means of resolving this problem is support for Russian biology on the part of the world community, in particular the United States of America. I would like to stress that serious attention needs to be paid to support not only for military science, but also for peaceful biological science not associated with bioweapons. From the standpoint of potential involvement in the manufacture or development of bioweapons, civilian virologists or molecular biologists are even more attractive to bioterrorists than are military specialists, given the weak control and monitoring research work carried out in civilian biological institutes in comparison with military organizations. I believe that the substantial expansion of the system for grant support of Russian biological sci- ence, especially basic biology, and of the system for joint Russian-American projects in biology will be beneficial to both sides and would promote the inte- gration of Russian biology into the world scientific community. In this regard, Russian-U.S. cooperation is possible in the area of basic biological research and in the joint development of means for detecting and diagnosing potential patho- gens or toxins that could be used by bioterrorists, as well as means of preventing and treating diseases caused by these pathogens. The more active involvement of
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BIOLOGICAL TERRORISM 113 Russian biologists in joint research projects would undoubtedly reduce the prob- ability of their potential use by bioterrorists. Without a doubt, the development of biological science and biotechnology that we are currently observing will lead in the near future to outstanding funda- mental discoveries affecting our understanding of the functioning of certain genes in microorganisms, mechanisms of pathogenesis, and the interaction of viruses with the immune systems of animals. This will make it possible to combat hu- man, animal, and plant diseases more effectively. On the other side of the coin, these discoveries will also lead unavoidably to the appearance of new artificially constructed microorganisms and viruses with greater virulence than the initial strains, pathogens not recognized by the immune system, modified toxins with a high degree of stability, and so forth. At present, bioterrorism based on the use of the latest achievements in molecular biology appears unlikely due to the need for large expenditures and highly skilled specialists associated with terrorist groups. However, within the next few years it could present a colossal problem for the modern world. In conclusion, I would like to focus attention once again on certain state- ments included in my report: 1. The relative ease of making biological weapons, the practical invulnera- bility of the perpetrators, and the possibility of the outbreak of disease on a gigantic scale obviously make biological weapons one of the most attractive tools for terror in the twenty-first century. 2. In connection with the poverty-stricken position of Russian biology, Rus- sia possesses favorable conditions for terrorist groups, including terrorist groups from third countries, to make or even develop biological weapons. In this regard, Russia could potentially become one of the top sites for the manufacture of biological weapons by terrorists. Active targeted support for Russian biological science by the world community, and primarily by the United States of America, would undoubtedly promote the elimination of these negative tendencies. 3. The main factor restraining the spread of bioterrorism is the lack up to now of a sufficiently wide-scale successful act of bioterrorism receiving world- wide attention, regardless of the country in which such an act might occur. An unfavorable situation has developed in Russia, and it might become one of the main proving grounds for the testing of bioweapons in terrorist or criminal ac- tions. This cannot be permitted, because the successful staging of an act of bioterrorism on Russian soil might serve as the starting point for the further spread of bioterrorism. It is essential that an international system for countering bioterrorism be created and that Russia be actively involved in this system.
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