Last time the media covered any malicious use of biologicals was around the September 11 attacks and it involved several letters that were tainted with the spores of bacterium Bacillus anthracis, aka anthrax. Since then, the bioterror front has remained quiet. The seeming lack of bioterrorism in today’s world boils down to the fact that without heavy state intervention an underground terror cell will find itself lacking heavily in at least one of the three key aspects necessary to execute a successful and worthwhile terrorist plot.
Before we delve into the details as to how and why these factors are so critical we need to define bioterrorism. As stated by the CDC, it involves the use of live biological specimens (bacteria, viruses, parasites, prions etc.) to cause widespread death and sickness among the general population. Therefore, this does not include the use of chemicals, synthetic or natural (such as ricin, made popular by the assassination of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov). It also excludes nuclear agents such as polonium-231 used in the alleged assassination of Alexander Litvinenko and the various dirty bomb plots.
Just like everyone else, terrorists are bound by the constraints of the capitalist system that they find themselves in and as such, any terror-related activity would require substantial funding. In the case of bioterrorists, the problems of funding are doubly difficult for a couple of reasons. One is that biological agents are by definition alive and have to be maintained as such to retain effectiveness which means a sustainable influx of necessary equipment and materials needed for this purpose. The second is an issue that bioterrorists happen to share with any biological science graduate student which is the means of procuring funding. The simple fact being that basic science and bioterrorism is a very high-risk game with, more often than not, very poor outcomes. This means a necessary willingness to absorb high sunk costs on the part of any funding entity.
Everyone is looking for a return on investment be it either a large amount of publications or a high body count. Bioterrorism faces a huge amount of obstacles that makes doing it not worth your while. These include very high start-up costs, the chaotic and sometimes unpredictable nature of biological agents, problems with transport and distribution of the agent, target location for exposure, local environmental/societal factors that can enhance or inhibit spread, and the list goes on. Speaking in purely economic terms, it is much more cost effective to detonate a car bomb or a person, which have proven to cause high casualties and send the message across with fractions of the cost. Any group that attempts to engage in bioterrorism (or scientific research) will need to obtain funding from someone that does not mind spending money with no hope of return on investment, monetary or otherwise, and the only entity willing to do that repeatedly and consistently is the government.
Working with even the most rudimentary “weapons grade” biologicals requires very specialized knowledge. The most common biological to be used in terror activities is anthrax with the partial reason being that it is relatively easy to work with. Regardless, all of the anthrax plots perpetrated to date have been very minimal in terms of fatalities and wounded (infected) when compared to more conventional terror means. The best example where a trained individual could have improved outcomes is the somewhat comical plot that involved the release of anthrax by the Japanese death cult Aum Shinrikyo in Tokyo by spraying it from misters on rooftops. The group was using the weakened strain meant for vaccinating cattle. The attacks caused no harm, went unnoticed, and was unknown to anyone until members confessed to them after the slightly more successful Tokyo subway sarin gas attacks.
The knowledge needed to solve many of the problems related to bioterrorism mentioned above can only be provided by a highly trained individual whose services are rarely available on the black market. A concerted effort by government organs to supply such highly skilled personnel would be required in order to properly manufacture and maintain weaponized biological agents. Judging by the lack of activity in the bioterror field this has seemingly not occurred yet or such individuals are reluctant to offer their knowledge for such a purpose of their own free will. More likely they are all too busy manning laboratories and worrying about next year’s funding.
The final problem that the bioterrorist faces in their work is a lack of tools and equipment. Synthesis, maintenance, and propagation of biologicals requires unique equipment that ranges from somewhat to exorbitantly expensive, requires training to operate and maintain properly, but – most importantly – is difficult to obtain through unofficial channels (I tried). This brings us back full circle to our previous two factors. With that, I will take the opportunity to address the case study of scientists whose work of enhancing flu infectivity was muzzled on US request.
Viruses are notoriously difficult to work with and repeating the experiments done in this paper would require the utmost in funding to buy a team of highly educated individuals, specialized equipment, and containment facilities that would prove to be colossally expensive for anyone not on a government payroll. I suspect that the redactions in the study were motivated less by a fear of terrorist groups and more out of fear that this knowledge will be utilized by rogue states such as North Korea.
When you look at the history of misuse of biological agents, a pattern emerges. From the pots of poisonous snakes thrown onto Roman ships by the Carthaginian navy, through dumping corpses into wells to poison populations during sieges, through to the Japanese bombardment of Chinese villages with germs, it is clear that involvement of a state actor is necessary to execute a bioterror plot successfully. If a 21st-century government does choose to involve itself in bioterrorism again, directly or indirectly, we are going to have a significant problem on our hands.