Bioterror expert says threat has escalated
The October 15 anthrax attack that closed the House of Representatives and some Senate offices and threw Capitol Hill into turmoil, however, ushered in a new, more ominous chapter in the annals of bioterrorism. For the first time in history, a sophisticated germ weapon was used successfully as a weapon of terror. An enemy with large quantities of such a form of anthrax, and an efficient means of delivering it, could potentially inflict casualties on a massive scale.
For insight into the bioterror threat, National Journal Correspondent James Kitfield interviewed Michael L. Moodie, longtime president of the Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute in Washington.
NJ: It has been widely reported that the anthrax that arrived by letter in the office of Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle on October 15 was a potent, finely milled variety consisting of particles so minuscule that they can spread through the air without detection. Already, 33 Senate staffers-some in adjacent offices-have tested positive for exposure to the anthrax. Does this represent a significant escalation in the threat posed by bioterrorism?
Moodie: If in fact this turns out to be highly pure anthrax that is milled to the right size for efficient dispersal and infection, that will definitely represent a significant elevation in the level of threat we face. Until this week, authorities had not really characterized the quality of the anthrax agent, and many people who were exposed to it did not contract the disease. Many experts thus assumed it was a relatively crude form of anthrax. Reports on the more recent attack suggest a level of sophistication and expertise in developing the anthrax agent-whether it was done by a state actor or by terrorists themselves-that is well above where experts were assuming. That's something we have to worry about.
NJ: Is it surprising that a single letter apparently led to as many as 33 Senate staffers' being exposed to the anthrax?
Moodie: One quandary that I find difficult to explain at this time is the use of an apparently sophisticated biological agent, coupled with a rather primitive means of delivery. I'm not sure what that implies about the motivations and capabilities of the perpetrators. Are they choosing to use mail sent to high-profile targets because they only have a small amount of anthrax agent, and thus want to maximize its impact? Does that imply that the terrorists, whoever they are, are unable to make more anthrax themselves? Were they unable to develop a more sophisticated dissemination technique that would have produced more casualties, or were they trying to terrorize and scare, rather than actually kill a lot of people? The incongruity of this apparently sophisticated biological agent and a primitive delivery vehicle raises all these questions that weren't part of the mystery before the latest attack.
NJ: Osama bin Laden has proclaimed that acquiring chemical and biological weapons was a "religious duty," and the CIA has reported that he trained followers in terror attacks using such weapons. There have also been reports that bin Laden was interested in using low-flying aircraft to dispense toxic materials. Would a crop-duster scenario represent a "sophisticated" delivery technique for bio weapons?
Moodie: Well, the basic technologies for dispersing crop-dusting chemicals and an aerosol of biological agents are somewhat different, so it's not necessarily an easy match. One reason the latest attack is so worrisome, however, is that once you have the technology to mill a pure form of anthrax with the correct spore sizes, you're a major step closer to being able to put that into an aerosol form. At that point, all you need is some sort of industrial sprayer in order to have a potentially catastrophic impact.
NJ: Do you consider it indicative that Mohamed Atta, one of the September 11 hijackers, was making pointed inquiries about crop dusters?
Moodie: That's a clear cause for concern. Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network have not only been clearly seeking chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction, but he has articulated an elaborate rationale for using them against America and the West. The possibility that Al Qaeda is behind these anthrax attacks is certainly a scenario that has to be looked at very, very carefully.
NJ: There have been unconfirmed reports in the media in recent years of biological agents such as anthrax leaking into terrorist hands from former member states of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact. Does anything about this case suggest where terrorists would acquire for the first time such a sophisticated biological agent?
Moodie: That's a very important question that is difficult to answer. The official guess is that there are around 15 "countries of concern" that are pursuing biological and chemical weapons. Once you look deeper into that list, however, it's very difficult to know authoritatively how far those programs have advanced. Certainly, the Soviet Union had a massive biological weapons program, including a major program focused on anthrax. It's generally assumed that North Korea has an offensive biological weapons program that includes anthrax, though little definitive is known about it. There's also a lot of evidence, and a line of logic, that points to Iraq as a possible source of this anthrax, though that's only a possibility that needs to be looked at very carefully.
NJ: Are you aware of any evidence of a state sharing its chemical or biological weapons agents with a terrorist group?
Moodie: A major element of the debate about the likelihood of a bioterror attack for the past five or six years has been the lack of any such evidence pointing to a "state of concern" sharing its biological or chemical weapons with a non-state actor. As we find out more about these anthrax attacks, however, one question that will have to be asked is whether a state was involved. Given the sophistication of the anthrax agent, I would say there is a higher possibility of that being the case than I would have assumed before this week.
NJ: Why does anthrax seem to figure so prominently in the bioterrorism scenarios, and are there other agents the United States should worry about?
Moodie: Anthrax has a long history as a biological weapon stretching back 60-plus years. Because it's not uncommon in livestock, it's a reasonably available disease. It's not contagious person-to-person, and is thus a more controllable biological agent for use in warfare when your own soldiers might be in proximity. Anthrax is also a fairly hardy agent that is not overly susceptible to weather, and it's fairly quick-acting. All of these attributes make it attractive as a potential biological weapon.
As for other biological agents, smallpox is always mentioned, primarily because of the potential consequences inherent in the disease itself. Smallpox is very contagious, and it has a roughly 30 percent fatality rate. Unlike anthrax, however, smallpox has been eradicated and is no longer found in nature. There are only a few stocks of smallpox around the world, and those are presumably tightly controlled. So it would not be simple for a terrorist to acquire smallpox. Having said that, we need to do more, in light of these recent attacks, to prepare ourselves for terrorists possibly acquiring smallpox. Beyond that, there is a long list of potential biological agents to worry about, including botulinum toxin, bubonic plague, and tularemia. The Soviet biological weapons program apparently also experimented with Ebola.
NJ: What must the United States do to better prepare itself for an era of bioterror?
Moodie: We have to focus first on the front line, which is our public health system, from disease surveillance and lab analysis to hospital care. We need to incorporate advanced information technologies into our disease-reporting system. In the era of managed care and slim profit margins, we also have a serious lack of surge capability in our hospital system. In the case of a major bioterror incident, there would just not be enough beds and caregivers. Essentially, we need to develop a strategic approach to preparedness that incorporates deterrence, prevention, and response to bioterrorism.
NJ: Do you worry that this first successful attack in history using a sophisticated weapon of biological warfare has made the once "unthinkable" more likely in the future?
Moodie: Well, there have been very few actual attacks in the past. There was the 1984 case in Oregon involving salmonella, and an unsuccessful attempt at bioterror using anthrax by the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo in the mid-1990s. In fact, one of the problems in the debate about the likelihood of bioterrorism was the fact that there were so few actual attacks. The comment was always made, "Well, if this technology is so accessible, why haven't we seen more attacks?" That was a legitimate question. For those of us who have been arguing for greater national preparedness, however, the answer was that history is not necessarily a perfectly linear or continuous progression. There are unpleasant surprises and breakouts, and with biological weapons, you only have to be wrong once. So yes, we're now witnessing that threshold being crossed.