My first brush with “bioterrorism” occurred in 1997, when I was working as a television producer half a block from the B’nai B’rith National Headquarters in Washington, DC.
On April 24, a package leaking a red gelatin labeled “anthrax yersinia” was discovered in the B’nai B’rith mailroom. Police and emergency teams sealed off our street, and we watched from our building’s roof as medics in sealed white “moonsuits” hosed down unfortunate B’nai B’rith employees in the middle of Massachusetts Avenue. Later we learned that 17 people had been taken to a local hospital for monitoring.
The red gelatin was tested at the Bethesda Naval Research Facility. It turned out to contain neither anthrax nor bubonic plague (yersinia). The “bio-attack” was an anti-Semitic hoax, the perpetrator of which still has not been caught. Yet it cost more than $2 million to handle and was enough to close down a major thoroughfare less than a mile from the White House for 10 hours, disrupting normal activities in the city and spreading fear among its citizens.
The B’nai B’rith anthrax hoax is not by any means an isolated incident. The Monterey Institute of International Studies has been keeping track of recent terrorist incidents using chemical, biological, and nuclear materials. Their database shows that in the United States, all anthrax threats–34 in 2000 and 91 in 1999–were hoaxes.
Florida in October: No Hoax
But the Florida incident was clearly not a hoax.
In October, Bob Stevens, a photo editor for American Media Inc. (AMI)–the parent company of the supermarket tabloids The National Enquirer and The Globe–died of inhalational anthrax. This is the worst form of the disease, in which victims are infected by inhaling spores of the anthrax bacteria; it kills at least 80 percent of its victims who do not receive antibiotic treatment before the onset of its flu-like symptoms.
Fortunately, anthrax is not contagious, so people who come in contact with an infected person are not at risk of contracting the illness. The Centers for Disease Control and the Federal Bureau of Investigation screened hundreds of AMI employees and discovered anthrax in the nasal passage of another person, 73-year-old Ernesto Blanco, who supervises the company’s mailroom; Blanco was treated for flu-like symptoms at a Florida hospital. They also found anthrax spores on Stevens’ computer keyboard. The AMI building was sealed, all AMI employees were tested for Anthrax, and investigators combed the building for the source of the infection.
But doesn’t anthrax occur naturally? Couldn’t this be just a gruesome coincidence at a jittery time?
“It’s pretty safe to say that the Florida incident is not a natural occurrence,” says Claudine McCarthy, a research associate in the Chemical and Biological Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Project at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington, DC. “You don’t get anthrax in office buildings and on people’s keyboards naturally.” Eric Croddy, a research associate at the Monterey Institute, puts the chances that the outbreak is natural at less than 50 percent.
McCarthy’s and Croddy’s assessments are consistent with the Consensus Statement of leading experts on “Anthrax as a Biological Weapon” published in the May 12, 1999 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). This document declared, “No case of inhalational anthrax has been reported in the United States since 1978, making even a single case a cause for alarm today.”
McCarthy hastens, however, to point out that the Florida incident is a good example of what is much more likely to happen if terrorists actually use anthrax: A few people are exposed and harmed, but there is no widespread exposure or mass casualties. “It is much more difficult to use anthrax and other biological agents in mass attacks than is often suggested by the media,” McCarthy notes.
Because of the difficulty in “weaponizing” biological agents, she concludes that even if the Florida incident does turn out to be some sort of attack, Americans have no reason to panic.
Not Easily Turned into Weapons
Just how difficult it is to turn bacteria into weapons is illustrated by the case of the Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo. In the 1990s, the cult, in an effort to spark an apocalyptic war between Japan and the United States, spent millions of dollars developing biological weapons. On eight different occasions, it tried but failed to spread anthrax and botulism throughout Tokyo with a rooftop sprayer and automobile exhaust systems. Frustrated, the cult then turned in March 1995 to Sarin nerve gas, which they released in plastic bags in the Tokyo subway, killing 12 commuters and making thousands ill.
“Most experts concur that the manufacture of a lethal anthrax aerosol is beyond the capacity of individuals or groups without access to advanced biotechnology,” says the JAMA Consensus Statement. It then strikes a more worrisome note: “However, autonomous groups with substantial funding and contacts may be able to acquire the required materials for a successful attack.”
Acquire the required materials from whom? After the Gulf War, the United Nations’ inspectors found and destroyed 157 Iraqi aerial bombs loaded with various biological agents, including anthrax. Most experts believe Iraq is still engaged in producing biological weapons. According to Croddy, the Department of Defense has “intimated that Osama bin Laden has been seeking biological weapons for many years.”
Preliminary information suggests the Florida anthrax strain is susceptible to being treated with penicillin. That means it is not one of the more dangerous versions created by weaponeers in the Soviet Union. If terrorists did acquire the Florida anthrax spores from an outside source, it may be possible to use genetic testing to trace the strain back to the original makers.
In addition, Croddy notes it would be relatively easy for a determined group to produce small amounts of anthrax spores that could be spread as non- aerosols, perhaps through the mail.
Even if it turns out that, as unlikely as it seems, the Florida outbreak has a natural explanation, there is little doubt would-be terrorists will be issuing further anthrax and other bioterrorism threats in the future as a way of trying to sow uncertainty and panic. So what to do?
“First, take a deep breath and don’t panic,” advises the Stimson Center’s McCarthy. “Whatever is happening in Florida is not indicative of a massive attack nor does it point to the possibility of such attacks. Panicking is what the terrorists want us to do.” She notes that since the despicable attacks on September 11, the U.S. public health system has been on very high alert, monitoring to make sure any biological attack is quickly detected and contained.
Other experts warn Americans against promiscuously using antibiotics like ciprofloxacin (Cipro) on a continuing basis in a misguided effort to ward off an unlikely anthrax attack.
The bottom line? “I live in Washington, DC. I don’t have a gas mask and I take the Metro every morning to work,” says McCarthy. “It’s a risk leaving your house to go to work every day. The remote possibility of a bioterrorist attack isn’t worth worrying about.”
Ronald Bailey is a science correspondent for Reason. Reprinted, with permission, from Reason Online. Copyright 2001 by Reason Foundation, 3415 South Sepulveda Boulevard #400, Los Angeles, CA 90034. www.reason.com