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Biological Terrorism

October 1, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: In 1995, members of a Japanese cult released saran gas in a Tokyo subway, causing 12 deaths and thousands of injuries. Since then, the world has not seen a chemical or biological attack. Still, government officials fear that terrorists– perhaps associates of those who mounted the September 11 hijackings– might try to stage a bioterrorist attack. Members of the Bush administration expressed that concern on yesterday’s talk shows.

CORRESPONDENT: How worried should American citizens be right now of these bio or chemical terrorism threats to their security?

JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, frankly, we believe that these were threats that were worth looking into very seriously. Individuals– not only those involved in the hijackings, but related individuals– making inquiries about crop dusting, and being observant of literature on how to disperse things in an aerosol way.

Linking up that information with an awareness that Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden have announced their interest in these kinds of ways of mass destruction, I think we ought to be concerned about it.

RAY SUAREZ: Last week, Ashcroft confirmed that Mohammed Atta, who is considered a leader of the hijackings, was trying to learn more about crop dusters prior to the attacks. In the three weeks since then, the Federal Aviation Administration twice grounded all crop dusters because of those concerns.

Meanwhile, several reports, including one last week from the General Accounting Office, have listed possible viruses or agents that may be a threat, including anthrax spores, which can be transmitted by inhaling airborne particles. Untreated, it can be fatal. But timely antibiotic treatment can thwart its effect. Pneumonic plague: Antibiotics can cure it too, but untreated, it is almost always fatal.

And the smallpox virus, which has been eradicated — the virus exists in only two places: At the Centers for Disease Control and at a facility in Russia. An immunization has not occurred in two decades. In recent weeks, leading authorities, ranging from a congressionally appointed commission to the GAO to the World Health Organization, have questioned whether the United States and other countries are ready to deal with such an attack.

DR. DAVID HEYMANN: The world is very vulnerable to these activities because there is rapid intercontinental travel, and some of these diseases might have an incubation period – a period between infection and disease — of up to one or two weeks. So if people were infected somewhere, they could travel very widely.

RAY SUAREZ: At the same time, Bush Administration officials are trying to calm Americans. In an interview on “60 Minutes” last night, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said: “We’ve got to make sure that people understand they’re safe and that we are prepared to take care of any contingency, any consequence that develops from any kind of bioterrorism attack…I have three kids and tonight, tonight I’m telling them that they are safe.” Still, some merchants have reported growing sales of gas masks and other protective equipment.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on the threat, we get two perspectives. Raymond Zilinskas is a senior scientist in residence at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. And Bill Patrick worked in the U.S. Biological Warfare Program for 11 years until President Nixon suspended it in 1969. He later worked for the U.S. Army’s Office of Infectious Diseases. Both men served as United Nations arms inspectors in Iraq.

Mr. Zilinskas, maybe you can explain what a biological weapon is.

RAYMOND ZILINSKAS: A biological weapon is a pathogen, and it initiates a disease into… in the host, which is quite different than a chemical weapon, which acts immediately on a physiological system. So, as was mentioned before, the main characteristic about a biological weapon is that you have an incubation period of any with between 24 and 72 hours: In other words, between the time the attack takes place and the symptoms appear.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you have to deliver something alive to your intended human targets?

RAYMOND ZILINSKAS: Absolutely. You have to get the pathogen to it. That is a very good question, because that is really the major problem with a biological weapon. In order to be effective, it has to be good at dispersing the organism so that each… That the pathogen is transported to the host and that the host either ingests or breathes in sufficient number of the pathogen to become ill.

RAY SUAREZ: Mr. Patrick, I know people are familiar with chemical weapons from World War I, from their uses in illicit ways over the years, but has there ever been a biological weapon attack in the history of the world?

BILL PATRICK: Well, biological weapons go back to the 13th century. They catapulted bodies of plagued victims over the walls of city- state and probably initiated the plague outbreak that killed 30 or 40 million people in the 13th century. So biological weapons have been around a long, long time.

RAY SUAREZ: In the modern context, trying to deliver them to a population as a weapon, as an attack, how would you get the pathogens that Mr. Zilinskas mentioned into a population to start getting people sick?

BILL PATRICK: Well, with experience, a weaponeer can develop a very efficient system. And the United States, until President Nixon disestablished our program in 1969, we were very effective in this sort of material. Of course, the Soviet Union were also very efficient in developing weapons of mass destruction. You know, you don’t go to school to learn about biological warfare. You have a curriculum of microbiology and biochemistry, but experience is what you need in order to develop a weapon of significance.

RAY SUAREZ: Is it the situation where you could develop the stuff, the raw material, the pathogen, the virus, but the real difficulty comes in its delivery?

BILL PATRICK: Well, yes. If we’re talking about outside environments, the quality of the agent, the quality of the disseminator, the quality of the delivery system has to be very sophisticated because when you deliberately release an organism into the outside environment, you have many factors that are against you.

You have the fusion of the aerosol as it moves laterally and vertically and a dilution factor plus the fact that you have ultraviolet light that will kill most organisms, the exception, of course, being anthrax since it’s a spore.But my greatest concern today is the fact that perhaps a state-supported terrorist with sophisticated information could come into this country carrying perhaps as much as 100 grams of roughly a fourth of a pound of a dry powder.

It could be anthrax or uremia or plague, smallpox, you name it, and as long as the properties – or it has the right physical properties, the right concentration or what have you, I can take this powder and put it into an enclosed environment where I’m not dealing with all outdoors, put it in an enclosed environment like a subway system in Washington D.C.; and even though I have very little material here, it can cause a great deal of infection, a large number of infections.

RAY SUAREZ: Mr. Zilinskas, we saw a very small amount of powder in Mr. Patrick’s hands. He says he can make a lot of people sick with it. Do you worry about the threat of this? Is this that easily carried out?

RAYMOND ZILINSKAS: It’s somewhere in the back of my mind. It’s no question that given the demonstration of what the… Of the terrorists on September 11, what they’re capable of, which is a really good organizational effort, tremendous ruthlessness and undoubtedly lots of resources. You know, you have to worry that these people will turn their attention to biological and chemical weapons.

But to put it into perspective, for the average American, the chance of contracting a disease of natural origin is much, much greater than any deliberately dispersed biological agent. So we have to keep this in mind as we think about where the threat really is. The threat is really from nature, not so much from the bioterrorists.

RAY SUAREZ: The Aum Shinrikyo, which did carry out a successful chemical attack on the Tokyo subways, tried repeatedly to deliver anthrax to Tokyo, a very, very crowded city. They were living in one of the most technologically advanced societies on earth and they had a lot of money and they couldn’t do it.

BILL PATRICK: Exactly. It’s a difficult question for me to answer because it would be easy for me because of my experience and background but I think it’s more difficult than most people realize. My fear is not Tom, Dick and Harry type of terrorists we have in this country. I don’t think they’re there yet. Perhaps they’re working on it but they’re not there yet. What I’m concerned about is a sophisticated group bringing in through the United Nations, through the immunity of the United Nations a small packet of material that has all the physical properties that you need and laying that material, for example, in an enclosed environment, subway system, introducing it into a building.

And that’s my fear. I don’t fear the homegrown terrorist today. I don’t think they’re there. It takes too much sophistication. When we’re talking about a weapon, most people think of microbiologist and you need a microbiologist but you also need chemical engineers, and you need a physicist, you need a mol shop; you need a munitions development engineer who understands the physics of aerosol.

RAY SUAREZ: Presumably a lot of advanced work, Mr. Zilinskas.

RAYMOND ZILINSKAS: Well, absolutely. With everything Bill has said, you know, sometimes when you talk to scientists and they say, ah, the genetic engineering to do X or Y, it’s easy. Well, it’s easy for them but it’s not easy for me. So you have to keep this in mind that what Bill and I are talking about is a very arcane specialty.

To put the agent together with a weapons system and then to disperse it correctly, that’s technically demanding. Like Bill was saying, to short- cut this, if there was a… the possibility of a cooperation between a terrorist group and a national government that has already done all this work, I think that’s the most frightening scenario.

RAY SUAREZ: In your view, it would be difficult for a group acting without the help of the government to ramp up the science, the delivery, all on their own?

RAYMOND ZILINSKAS: Well, we’re talking about threshold levels. We’re talking about a weapon of mass destruction, yes. But to do something easy like was done in the… In 1984 in the United States in Oregon where you had a food borne agent, which causes dysentery, I must say that’s pretty easy to do but it is not going to kill a lot of people. So therefore that kind of operation is really not of interest to an organization such as the one who did the September 11th terrorist attacks.

RAY SUAREZ: Apart from anthrax, are there other agents that lend themselves to….


RAY SUAREZ:… To an operation that isn’t technically sophisticated?

BILL PATRICK: Oh, yes. The Soviet Union weaponized Marburgh virus — this is a real killer. It has no vaccine. It has no treatment. They used a very non-sophisticated process to produce Marburgh virus. They infected thousands and thousands and thousands of guinea pigs and simply processed the organs and serum, the blood from the guinea pig. The virus did not grow very well in tissue cultures so they used a very simple laboratory animal to produce large quantities of Marburgh virus.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you think they would have been successful if they had tried to deliver it?

BILL PATRICK: Oh, there’s no question in my mind. When I had the privilege of debriefing Dr. Elivak for the agency many, many years ago, they had three agents, all three agents were lethal and they were in their intercontinental ballistic missiles. They had weaponized anthrax, plague, and Marburgh virus all aimed at our major cities. So if we had gotten into a fighting war with these people, we would have been in bad trouble because, you know, these agents are very lethal.

RAY SUAREZ: Bill Patrick, Raymond Zilinskas, thank you both very much.