For many Americans, 2001 is cemented as being the year of the September 11th attacks. However, merely a week after another historical act of terror took place. The first act of bioterrorism-related inhalation anthrax occurred on September 18th. This campaign of terror although significant only claimed five lives. It wasn’t the first act of bioterror in America either. That trophy goes to the Rajneeshi cult who weaponized Salmonella in an attempt to take political control over Wasco County. Although no casualties, it was the first and largest act of biological terror in America.
From the previous examples it may seem that bioterrorism isn’t as much of a looming thread as fiction may make it out to be, which may be true. The anthrax attacks were done with the highly virulent Ames strain of the bacteria which led it to be traced to a government biodefense lab. Acquiring virulent strains is one of the biggest obstacles for bioterrorists and it is unlikely non-researchers could obtain, let alone isolate weaponizable anthrax considering isolation requires a special medium of thallous acetate which is highly poisonous and regulated. The Aum Shinrikyo cult attempted to use anthrax as a weapon of mass destruction. They however purchased a less than virulent strain commonly used for vaccinating livestock. That and other factors meant there were no cases as a result.
The well funded Aum cult with its many highly educated academics didn’t stop there in their aspirations for mass murder. Although best known for their sarin attacks, they attempted to employ other biological agents. Before their anthrax attempt they twice tried spraying botulinus toxin, once in an attempt to kill the royal family. Clostridium botulinum although easy to culture (so easy in fact it often happens by accident) is harder to weaponize. The toxin it generates is one of the most deadly known to man with one microgram inhaled being enough to kill a grown man. Aerosolizing the bacteria proves to be the hardest part of weaponizing the disease and is where Aum failed. The cult also experimented with cholera, Ebola, and Q fever yet never employed any successfully as a biological WMD.
With the bioterrorism incidents described being limited to a schedule II and often nonlethal pathogen, attacks by a government researcher, and several failed attempts by an international and highly funded cult with schizophrenic aspirations of Armageddon, it may seem like the bioterror threat is all too distant. However, that may not be the case. Biotechnology has been undergoing somewhat of a revolution. The cost to sequence DNA has been decreasing by orders of magnitude. The human genome project which was completed in 2003 cost about $1billion to map a human genome. Today it costs under $1000. DNA synthesis technology too is improving although at a less exceptional rate. CRISPR technology makes it cheaper than ever for amateur scientists to experiment with gene editing. With public genome databases (NCBI) and services for ordering synthetic DNA such as IDT it may be possible to create synthetic diseases such as smallpox by stitching together DNA fragments. In 2006 the guardian purchased part of the smallpox genome by mail order. It would probably be better to use a DNA synthesizer oneself to avoid scrutiny if reviving exterminated diseases through recombinant DNA is up one’s alley. If technology such as sequencers and synthesizers are privately owned then the only way to really regulate experimentation is by targeting key chemicals such as nucleoside phosphoramidite.
The virus phage PhiX174 was a genome of over 5000 nucleotides and was made completely synthetically in two weeks back in 2003. Polio was built from scratch back in 2002 at just under 8000 nucleotides. In 2005 the 1918 Spanish Flu was synthetically reconstructed with a genome of over 13,000 nucleotides. A disease like smallpox has a genome of around 185,000 nucleotides. Horsepox, a closely related disease was synthetically stitched together from mail order DNA fragments proving it possible to be done with smallpox. Vaccinia virus is genetically about 90% similar to smallpox and thus could be modified using synthetic DNA fragments as opposed to being completely synthetically stitched together. This would be more economically viable than spending 100,000 euros on DNA like the horsepox researchers did.
Although attempts have been made to try to suppress research that could be used for bioterrorism, the scientific community seems to believe making research public is more important than any pretenses about public safety. One such example would be Ron Fouchier’s study into H5N1 and how his team made a particularly virulent strain of it to understand how viruses may naturally evolve and lead to a pandemic. His paper was the first time the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity requested scientific details be removed before publication for fear of reproduction.
It is remarkable how much data one can dig up among scientific literature. Information about US bioweapons simulations are publicly available such as Operation Sea-Spray. For instance, a test in the New York subway station in the 1960s found dropping a light bulb from a rapidly moving train is an easy and effective method for covert contamination of a subway line with a biological agent. Resources like scihub are excellent for scouring publicly available scientific information without the need for a journal subscription.
Logically one would think the bioterrorist threat would increase in proportion to the progress of science. Many analysts and policy makers believe bioweapons development requires only procuring biomaterials, scientific data, and equipment. The biggest hurdle to bioproliferation, judging by terrorist and state attempts, seems to be expertise. The suspected perpetrator of the amerithrax attacks had a decades long career in a U.S. military laboratory, access to anthrax, information, and equipment and only produced a low grade powder that became aerosolized as a result of the postal system’s sorting machines. What does this indicate to clandestine groups? There was a lot of fear mongering by analysts after the fall of the Soviet Union that now unemployed technicians with experience in bioweapons programs could be recruited by terrorist groups. Nothing materialized as a result of that. It has been noted that among jihadists with degrees, engineers are highly over-represented. Engineering terrorism is one thing, but developing a viable bioweapon requires a whole other level of expertise entirely. That isn’t to say bioproliferation won’t become an increasingly dangerous threat in the future. Human life and agriculture will undoubtedly be threatened with increasingly sophisticated biological agents as technology and expertise increases. The question that remains is when?