Unmasking Bioterror

Terrorists Are Experimenting With Pathogens And Poisons. But They Have Failed Before: Daunting Technical Obstacles Stand In The Way Of Biological And Chemical Weapons

Martin Quintino figures he's ready. On the day after the atrocities of Sept. 11, the 22-year-old Miami salesclerk bought one gas mask, one chemical bodysuit, a pair of camouflage gloves and an airtight hood that seals off the head and neck, all for $150. He wasn't alone. After residents of Snellville, Ga., stocked up on flags, they opened their wallets for $50 chemical suits and $100 water-purification kits. On New York's Fifth Avenue, Larry Lopez has been answering the phone of the Army-Navy store he manages, "We're out of gas masks. How can we help you?" In Boston, pharmacies have sold thousands of tablets of Cipro, an antibiotic that can treat anthrax. Miami's Manny Alvarez hasn't a single $38 chemical bodysuit left in his police-supply store--even for himself. But he doesn't care. "They give you a false sense of security," Alvarez says. "Are you going to wear a bodysuit to every Dolphins game you go to? I don't even have a gas mask in my house."

The attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon have made an anxious country ask, "What's next?" and for many the worry is: a terrorist assault with biological or chemical weapons. But just as there are panicky Martin Quintinos as well as sanguine Manny Alvarezes among ordinary Americans, so there is a deep divide within the intelligence, national-security, law-enforcement and scientific communities about the risk of attacks with "bugs or gas," as insiders call germ and chemical weapons. Skeptics point out that the technological hurdles are formidable. Expertise is rare. "There is an underappreciation of the technological obstacles to delivery, particularly with biological agents," says Elisa Harris, a National Security Council official during the Clinton administration. But because terrorists have mounted germ and chemical attacks before, runs the counterargument, they can do so again. This might be just a frustrating standoff among experts, except for one detail. Those with the deepest firsthand knowledge of bugs-and-gas take the threat the most seriously. One is microbiologist Bill Patrick, a leader in America's bioweapons program from 1951 to 1986, an Iraqi weapons inspector in 1994 and now a germ-warfare consultant (his business card shows a skull and crossbones). Unless something is done, says Patrick, the possibility of a bioweapon attack by agents of Osama bin Laden is "highly likely."

What we know for sure is that terrorists are experimenting with chemical and biological weapons. Operatives of bin Laden's Qaeda network have tried (apparently without success) to obtain anthrax and botulinum toxin in Czechoslovakia, an FBI official tells NEWSWEEK. Dozens of rabbits and dogs have been found fatally poisoned near bin Laden's Jalalabad training camps, according to a foreign intelligence agency. Though U.S. officials adamantly deny that their own satellites spied any such thing, in June CIA Director George Tenet warned, "Terrorists who fly no national flag are trying to acquire chemical and biological weapons." Chilling evidence of that came the following month, when convicted terrorist Ahmed Ressam (he was planning to blow up the Los Angeles airport as 1999 turned into 2000) testified that he had spent six months in 1998 at one of bin Laden's Afghan training camps. There, he said, he learned to release cyanide into the ventilation systems of office buildings. Bin Laden, Ressam told intelligence officials, was also interested in the use of "low-flying aircraft for the distribution of toxic materials."

In light of last month's terror attacks, such evidence looms more ominous for a simple reason: by making the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center look, in retrospect, like a dry run for Sept. 11, they suggest that recent biological and chemical attacks might also be harbingers of something more horrific. In 1984, followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh contaminated drinking glasses and salad bars in an Oregon town with salmonella. No one died; 751 people came down with the nausea, severe diarrhea, chills, fever and dizziness that mark salmonella poisoning. It was the first, and so far only, biological-weapon attack in the United States. Eleven years later terrorists struck with chemical weapons. Members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult filled plastic bags with the nerve agent sarin, slipped into a Tokyo subway station and punctured the bags with umbrellas. Twelve people died. Though the casualty tolls in Oregon and Tokyo were low, the attacks were a proof of principle: bug and gas terrorism is logistically possible.

But not easy. To mount a germ or chemical assault, terrorists would have to obtain pathogens, culture them in vast quantities and--hardest of all--"weaponize" them, or turn them into a form that remains virulent. And then, of course, the germs have to be released. Weapons experts are understandably reluctant to run down the weak points in the world's system for preventing all this. But this much is known:

Obtaining pathogens: In 1986 the same company that sold the Rajneeshis their salmonella sold the University of Baghdad three types of anthrax and five strains of botulinum, recounts the new book "Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War," by New York Times reporters Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg and William Broad. (The sales were all legal.) Two years later the company sold anthrax and other pathogens to the Iraqi Ministry of Trade. Deadly pathogens were part of global commerce, and the consequences quickly became clear: from 1990 to 1995, Aum Shinrikyo released anthrax or botulinum around Tokyo up to 12 times. In all likelihood the cult obtained its seed stocks from a rogue government, says Harris. Anthrax can cause fever, respiratory collapse and death within days; botulinum can trigger dizziness, blurred vision, muscle weakening and, ultimately, respiratory failure. None of Aum Shinrikyo's releases caused casualties.

There are other sources of pathogens besides terrorist-friendly states. Anthrax is a relatively common veterinary disease. "It's in Afghanistan," notes molecular biologist Paul Keim of Northern Arizona State University. "If a cow dies of anthrax it will bleed out its nose. All you have to do is scrape up a little blood"--or even get spores from the soil or a carcass--"put it in a petri dish, and you have anthrax." Aum Shinrikyo obtained botulinum organisms from naturally contaminated soil. Bubonic plague is also abundant in nature. "There are little pockets of it in rodents throughout the world," says Stephen Morse of Columbia University. Staphylococcus B enterotoxin comes from foodborne bacteria.

A terrorist would not need to start with rotten chicken, however. The world's supplies of pathogens are ample, their security questionable. In Kazakhstan, site of the old Soviet Union's bioweapons plants, one research center keeps at least 80 strains of anthrax, as well as plague and cholera, at its main facility and eight satellite labs. "Just this year we built a concrete wall and were able to hire a guard who is actually a professional," says lab director Bakhyt Atshabar. "We've put up bars and doors and strengthened security. Of course, before, things were not so well controlled. People got in." At the eight satellite labs, he adds, "there are still problems with security." Smallpox is harder to acquire. After the World Health Organization declared the disease eradicated in 1980, only two repositories of the virus supposedly remained: 451 samples in deep freeze at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, and 120 in Koltsovo, Russia. Both are well secured. But a classified 1998 report by the CIA concluded that clandestine stocks remain, probably in North Korea and Iraq (as well as secret sites in Russia). And China, Cuba, India, Iran, Israel, Pakistan and the former Yugoslavia might have retained smallpox samples from the days when the disease was rampant.

'Weaponizing': A vial of smallpox or a petri dish of anthrax is not a weapon of mass destruction. When Aum piped botulinum into the streets of Tokyo using a truck with a compressor and vents, nobody got sick. It hadn't acquired a virulent strain. And unless your goal is the assassination of a single individual, you need (depending on the pathogen) pounds and pounds to come close to a WTC-level horror. That's a real obstacle to weaponizing smallpox: viruses grow only in live cells, not on dishes of nutrients as, say, staph does. And even if you reap a bumper crop, the germs must still be turned into respirable powder that can be blown into a building's HVAC system or a crowd in a closed space. (Although cholera thrives in water, other pathogens do not. Both anthrax spores and smallpox must reach the lungs to do damage.) "Making a powder is a huge hurdle for the bad guys," says retired Col. David Franz, former commander of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. "It's hard to dry stuff without killing it. And the material needs other treatments as well." Grains larger than about 10 microns do not reach the lungs; those smaller than a micron are exhaled right back out. If you skip the powder step, as Aum apparently did, simply scraping anthrax off their culture dishes and spraying it, you will likely have relatively harmless glop. Weaponizing germs, says Sergei Popov, a Soviet biowarfare scientist who defected in 1992, "is not a basement production."

It requires expertise. But there is, unfortunately, more of that on the loose than anyone dreamed. At Stepnogorsk in northern Kazakhstan, in what was once the world's largest bioweapons plant, "many of the specialists are unemployed now, and some have disappeared," says Dastan Eleukenov, head of the Monterey Institute of International Studies' office in Kazakhstan. "We are concerned that some could be working in Iraq or Iran. When you're talking about bioweapons, the brain drain is more important than the material."

Dispersal: Aum Shinrikyo's failures show that the greatest obstacle to bioterrorism is disseminating the pathogen. Aerosolizing germs and spewing a powder through a tiny nozzle poses severe engineering problems, says Franz. Powders are hard to work with. Pumps with powders are hard to work with. Nozzles clog, jam, sputter and backfire. That applies to crop-dusters, too--fears of which, said an FBI source at the weekend, had "gotten out of hand." Because anthrax is not contagious, only people who inhale the airborne spores get sick. But that has to happen fast: ultraviolet light in sunshine degrades anthrax spores within minutes.

Chemical agents are easier in every way but are generally less lethal. Many are in wide industrial use (cyanide is used to clean metals, for instance) and thus easier to steal than, say, smallpox. Toxic chemicals are already weaponized. Although you need more of a chemical than of a biological agent to kill people (probably thousands of pounds dropped over a city), delivery is an even lower-tech task than turning 767s into missiles. A truck, perhaps smashed into a concrete barrier, would do fine. Or, "just put an odorless poison into a building's ventilation system," says chemist Igor Revelsky, who helped develop the Soviets' chemical weapons. "You could take out half the Pentagon and you wouldn't need to learn how to fly or train kamikazes."

All of this--the availability of bugs and gas, the "missing" Soviet weapons scientists, the history of bug-and-gas attacks by terrorists--was well known before Sept. 11. Just last year the CIA's Tenet told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that bin Laden was training agents to use biological and chemical weapons. So although such warnings were not always taken seriously, the United States has already launched a multibillion-dollar effort to thwart biochem terrorism, ranging from assistance to local governments in planning for an attack to disease-surveillance systems. Later this year the Department of Energy will test an early-warning system for toxic chemicals in subway systems. Detectors have already been secretly installed at the test site, a D.C. Metro station, NEWSWEEK has learned, though nationwide implementation is years away. DoE is also launching a project to install biodetectors in stadiums, convention halls and other large areas. Later this year the biotech company Cepheid expects to deliver to the Army a DNA-based, breadbox-size detector that can identify the presence of anthrax, Q-fever, staph B enterotoxin and other weaponizable pathogens. The research firm Arthur D. Little expects to market a badge-size detector for nerve gas next year.

Since last month's attacks, federal and state agencies have gone on alert for signs of biochem terrorism. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is stepping up checks on meat at processing plants. The Environmental Protection Agency has ordered every municipal water system on a "heightened state of alert" for bioterrorism. The Department of Health and Human Services is checking canned goods.

And if prevention fails? "We are simply not prepared to respond to a biological or chemical attack," says Columbia's Morse. In a computer-aided simulation this June, a dozen experts including former senator Sam Nunn and Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating tried to contain a simulated smallpox attack. They failed. No central authority collected information from hospitals, so the extent, speed and even the existence of the epidemic was unknown: patients diagnosed with flu, whose symptoms resemble those of early-stage smallpox, traveled long distances and infected hundreds of people. Hospitals were overwhelmed. Americans have not been vaccinated against smallpox since the 1970s, and immunity lasts only about 20 years. There is no drug treatment. Three months after the outbreak, simulated smallpox killed 1 million simulated people.

To protect real Americans requires more than is now in place. We need a system to deliver vaccines, which can act as a firewall against the spread of smallpox. (Anthrax vaccine would hardly staunch a terror attack: you may need as many as six doses over 18 months for full protection.) The United States has some 12 million doses of smallpox vaccine stockpiled and 40 million more on order for 2004. Drugs and antibiotics can treat cyanide poisoning and staph infection, while atropine counters the effects of the nerve gases VX and sarin. Despite its newfound popularity, however, the antibiotic Ciprofloxacin has to be taken before anthrax symptoms appear. Otherwise, anthrax has a fatality rate of more than 90 percent. To put in place and maintain a bugs-and-gas response system, estimates Dr. Margaret Hamburg of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, would cost $500 million to $1 billion annually.

Is it worth the cost? Many experts argue that Al Qaeda operatives simply do not possess the scientific knowledge to weaponize germs, produce toxic chemicals in quantity or engineer an effective delivery system. After all, Aum Shinrikyo, with a war chest of more than $300 million, half-a-dozen labs and a stable of biologists, got nowhere with bioweapons and killed only a dozen people with sarin. But recent history shows the peril of underestimating the abilities of terrorists. If the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center was a bungled first attempt, then the attacks on America's embassies in East Africa, on the USS Cole and on the WTC and Pentagon showed that terrorists have a steep learning curve. Edward Szeliga, formerly of the Army Nuclear and Chemical Agency, compares the threat of biological and chemical terrorism today to that of nuclear attack in the 1950s. "Were the Soviets able to launch a massive nuclear strike [then]? No. But they continued to improve [until they] could launch multiple nuclear weapons at us. The real concern about bioterrorism is not the capabilities of terrorists today, but over time."

Biological or chemical terrorism still seems highly improbable in the near term; the gas masks and Cipro bought in the panicky aftermath of Sept. 11 may have long since deteriorated before such an attack becomes more likely than being struck by lightning. Bugs-and-gas is a problem for the long term, for the time when the memory of recent horrors has dulled--in short, the kind of threat that we're not very good at addressing. But in the new world created by the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, we would do well to be ready.

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