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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

U.S. Army Colonel David Franz 
Deputy Commander
Army Medical Research and Materiel Command
The following is adapted from testimony to the Senate Judiciary's
Subcommittee on Technology, Terrorism, and Government Information on
March 4.
(begin excerpts)
Question: What is biological warfare...biological terrorism?
Answer: Biological warfare may be defined as the intentional use of
microorganisms or toxins to produce death or disease in humans,
animals or plants. Microorganisms include bacteria and viruses, which
are also sometimes called replicating agents. Such agents can multiply
within our bodies and produce disease or death after infection with a
relatively small number of organisms. Biological toxins can be thought
of as chemicals which are produced not by man, but by other living
things -- animal(s), plants or microorganisms. Toxins do not make more
of themselves, so the exposure dose itself is what causes illness.
What distinguishes biological warfare from biological terrorism? The
two differ in breadth -- in the number of agents that can be used
effectively -- and in the potential countermeasures available to deal
with each. We have, generally, fewer tools and less information to
protect citizens from terrorism than we have had to protect a defined
military force from the classical biological warfare agents. With
regard to biological weapons, the threat to the force today may be
more like the terrorist threat to our cities than the battlefield
scenario for which we prepared during the Cold War.
Q: Why are we hearing so much about biological terrorism from the
media now?
A: Several factors that make these biological threats unique -- as
compared to chemical and nuclear weapons. First, facilities and
equipment designed for legitimate applications can be used to produce
biological agents; the facilities for research and development,
scale-up and production of agents...are widespread throughout the
world to include the United States. This is frequently termed the
"dual-use" problem. Secondly, the collapse of the former Soviet Union
and subsequent reduction in funding of its massive biological warfare
infrastructure may have resulted in a vulnerability for recruitment by
states trying to establish biological warfare programs. Finally, the
incredible advances in biotechnology over the past 10 years -- which
hold great promise of changing our lives and those of our children for
the good -- can potentially be used for evil as well. These factors
make the important job of our intelligence community extremely
difficult and complicate effective implementation of nonproliferation
Q: How important is public understanding of these issues?
A: The biological terrorist -- or even the biological hoaxer -- has
another important factor on his side. We are afraid of what we don't
understand. Superimpose, for a moment, the setting I have described
above on a society influenced by the popular press and having a
general lack of understanding of the technical aspects of this form of
warfare; the result is a population primed for being jerked violently
from complacency to panic with just a sensational news story or
documentary. Education is a critically important and cost-effective
part of the solution. Education of our doctors, our first responders,
our media, our leaders and our citizens.
Q: How do biological agents differ from chemical agents?
A: We all come in contact with dangerous chemicals daily. The gasoline
we put in our automobiles is potentially extremely dangerous. It can
burn us, it can damage our skin and it can make us sick if we inhale
its vapor. Although chemical warfare agents work by completely
different mechanisms and are much more toxic -- most of them are
volatile and active on the skin, like gasoline-biological agents are
neither volatile nor dermally active. In a liquid preparation, whether
anthrax bacteria or botulinum toxin or Ebola virus, the biological
agents will not move from an open container into the air without the
addition of energy. We could spill any of these on the floor, clean it
up with disinfectant, and go about our business. Not so for the
chemical agents, which would vaporize and make us sick or kill us.
Likewise, the majority of biological agents are not dermally active,
so just getting them on intact skin will typically not cause disease.
Fortunately, those two characteristics make the proliferator's job --
or the bioterrorist's job -- more difficult. There are significant
technical barriers that must be overcome to use biological agents
effectively against our forces, and because of the factors I have
mentioned above less formidable barriers to using them effectively
against our society.
Other important differences between biological and chemical agents
include the fact(s) that (1) biological agents can be isolated from
the environment, (2) some are contagious -- therefore, disease could
spread from exposed persons to a broader population -- (3) generally
much smaller volumes of biological agent are required for a given
target footprint and (4) the period between exposure and onset of
clinical signs is typically much longer for biological than for
chemical agents. The latter fact makes crisis management, and
particularly triage of patients, after an overt biological attack much
more difficult than for a chemical attack.
Q: How may biological agents be disseminated?
A: Because of the physical characteristics of biological agents, the
proliferator can probably expose a large target population efficiently
only by generating what we call a respirable, or breathable, aerosol.
A respirable aerosol is an airborne cloud of particles that can be
inhaled and retained in our respiratory tracts. It would be difficult
to produce mass casualties on a modern battlefield through
contamination of food or water, even though the oral route is another
way that biological agents can effectively enter our bodies. The
terrorist who would produce hundreds of thousands of casualties with
biological agents would need to develop an aerosol cloud, not just
spray material into the air or let it escape from a container as was
done with a crude chemical agent in the Tokyo subway. Nevertheless,
food and water contamination might be good enough for the terrorist,
who may simply want to cause panic or make the nightly news.
Q: What about the Cold War biological threats?
A: Not all biological agents are created equal. If we examine the
agent lists developed by proliferators during the Cold War era, and
even before, we see that most programs eventually focused on 10 to 15
agents. There is a reason the lists were so small. When one considers
the hundreds of infectious agents and toxins, only a small subgroup
has the physical and biological properties needed for a mass-casualty
producing biological weapon. These characteristics include ease of
production, infectivity or toxicity, stability -- during processing,
storage and in the environment -- and, of course, the ability to
effectively cause illness or death in the exposed population. Anthrax
comes out high on everyone's list because the spore form of the
organism is so very stable. Some viruses require just a few organisms
to infect and are so easy to grow to high concentrations that their
relatively poor stability becomes less important. Two of the toxin
families have been popular because of their extreme lethality or
incapacitation effects. The point is that very few agents have the
characteristics that make them good biological warfare, battlefield,
mass-casualty weapons agents. However, terrorists don't have to deal
with all the technical constraints intrinsic to the objectives of
large national biological warfare programs.
Q: Why are terrorist biological threats different?
A: To illustrate this point we did a theoretical analysis of 395
toxins, using the available data on their toxicity and applying
mathematical calculations that were validated in field tests during
the U.S. offensive program (now ended) in the 1960s. We found that,
based on toxicity alone, only 17 of the 395 toxins would be suitable
for wide battlefield use. Seventy-three are toxic enough to use in an
enclosed space such as the air handling system of a building or an
aircraft carrier -- or on a street corner during rush hour. The
remaining 305 would be useful only as assassination weapons against
individuals. Of the 17 toxic enough for battlefield use, all but a few
would probably be useless because they are either unstable or too hard
to produce in quantity. The same principles can be applied to bacteria
and viruses; not all agents are "good enough" for the battlefield, but
many more are good enough to get you on CNN. So, I hope you can see
that the terrorist has a much broader -- but not necessarily more
deadly -- armamentarium of biological agents from which to choose.
Q: Must we respond differently to the terrorist threat?
A: That multiplicity of potential terrorist agents makes the job of
those charged with protecting our civilian population difficult. To
protect a defined military force we can use prophylactic vaccines or
drugs, we can place detectors on the battlefield, and we can provide
full-face respirators which our troops can don with adequate warning
of an attack. After the attack, we can use diagnostic tools to
identify the agent and possibly the exposed population and treat them
with drugs or, in some cases, immunotherapy. We can decontaminate
victims, although we believe decontamination is less critical
following an aerosol biological attack than it might be following a
chemical attack. It is important to note that with the exception of
the protective mask, the decontaminants and a subset of the detectors,
the passive countermeasures must be designed for specific agents, or
families of agents. Furthermore, in the case of a terrorist attack, we
may not be able to use the vaccines, prophylactic drugs, detectors or
the physical protection. Following an announced or at least an overt
attack, we may only react to support an already exposed population
that, at the time, may look and feel no different than you and I do
today. After a covert attack, local health care providers may be the
first to notice that it has occurred; the outcome of such an attack
may resemble a disease outbreak, compressed in time. It will likely be
the relatively few scientists and clinicians in the DOD (the Defense
Department) and HHS (Health and Human Services Department) who conduct
research with these organisms daily, who can provide the technical
support to local, state and federal responders, and make the
difference between normal life and illness or death for our citizens.
Q: How difficult is it?
A: I think there is some good technical news. I believe that an
effective, mass-casualty producing attack on our citizens in this
country would require either a fairly large, very technically
competent, well-funded terrorist program or state sponsorship.
Although it will always be possible to obtain virulent organisms from
the environment, the technical hurdles between the agar slant and a
cloud covering many square miles of one of our cities are significant.
One can quite easily produce a liquid preparation of a number of these
agents, but liquids are difficult to disseminate effectively as
aerosols. If the terrorist can acquire a good dried material, with a
consistency like talcum powder, it would be easier to disseminate
effectively. However, most organisms don't like to be dried, and the
process requires special equipment. And even with the high-quality dry
material, weather and wind conditions make dissemination of the agent
and the resultant footprint unpredictable.
Q: Should we panic?
A: From my mostly medical research frame of reference, I believe the
biological terrorist threat to our cities is real. I am concerned
about state-sponsored terrorism, because with help, an individual or
small group could truly produce mass casualties. But even following an
effective attack, our established public health infrastructure within
national, state, and local governments could make an enormous
difference. At the other end of the spectrum, spraying a
diarrhea-causing bacterial preparation on a salad bar would be
extremely easy to do and could cause discomfort to a few hundred --
e.g., the Rajneesh incident. Nonetheless, I believe we can make a
difference. In addition to our public health capabilities, a
responsive research infrastructure with which to deal with the
unknown, an effective intelligence program to reduce that which is
unknown, solid law enforcement, moderation on the part of the media
and especially education of our health-care providers and our citizens
can make an enormous difference in the impact that the biological
terrorist might have on our way of life. I believe such an integrated
approach actually serves as a deterrent by increasing the risk to the
terrorist and reducing the likelihood of a successful attack.
(end excerpts)

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