Q: Do you think in a way that the anthrax scare we've been through has been
helpful to the country as a sort of wake-up call to the threat of
A: The anthrax-tainted letters have demonstrated that bioterrorism is a real
threat. Fortunately the attacks have remained limited, giving the U.S.
government a window of opportunity to strengthen the public health system so
that it can detect and rapidly contain more extensive attacks in the
Q: How do you weigh the public's right to know about the potential for
bioterrorism versus the risk of giving terrorists ideas or even information
that would make it more likely for them to carry out an effective attack? Is
there an inherent conflict there?
A: Government officials and the press must walk a fine line in providing
accurate information to the public without creating a "cookbook" for
terrorists. Unfortunately, the competitive nature of journalism sometimes
pushes reporters to reveal too much detailed information. Journalists need to
show a reasonable level of restraint by not publishing technical details that
are not essential to the basic thrust of the story.
Q: I am a student at Gadsden High School. I am doing an essay on how
manipulating viruses for biological warfare is immoral. Any comment you might
have would be appreciated. Do you think it is right to manipulate viruses as
weapons of mass destruction? Thank you.
A: The international scientific community needs to develop clear ethical
guidelines banning the manipulation of disease agents for offensive military
purposes. Possible measures include establishing a scientific code of conduct
for the bioscientist, including a pledge analogous to the Hippocratic Oath and
creating scientific oversight committees to regulate research on dangerous
Q: Although it may take considerable skill and knowledge for a non-suicidal
terrorist to safely handle the refined anthrax sent through the U.S. mail, does
this necessarily mean the distributor is the same person or persons as the
Why does the FBI profile of the anthrax terrorist appear to confuse or blend
distributor and supplier/manufacturer when these could be entirely different
people? It seems that the actual distributor could have a very different
profile than the supplier/manufacturer, and may not necessarily be a scientist
or have a lab, etc.
How much do we know about who in the U.S. in the last ten years is likely to
have obtained dangerous biological agents from various legitimate laboratories
and universities, whether they are internal or external to these suppliers?
A: The perpetrators of the anthrax letter attacks did not necessarily produce
the materials themselves. Indeed, the fact that only a few grams were sent
through the mail suggests that they possessed a limited quantity. They could
have purchased the refined material on the international black market or
obtained it from a state sponsor or a former bioweapons scientist. Thus, the
profile of the distributor may be different from that of the
Until 1997 the U.S. government did not regulate shipments or transfers of
dangerous pathogens within the United States. Even today, laboratories that
merely house anthrax but do not transfer it are not required to register with
the Centers for Disease Control. Overseas, controls and access to deadly germs
vary from country to country. Thus, little information is available on the
possible source of dangerous biological agents.
Q: There are rumors about polio being a terror threat. I had polio in 1952. If
there is an outbreak of polio can I get it again? Thanks.
A: Polio is an unlikely bioterrorist weapon because it is a water-borne disease
rather than one transmitted through the air, and it causes clinical illness in
only one out of every 100 children infected. Today, polio is approaching global
eradication, with only a few thousand cases reported worldwide this year. Even
so, because of the potential for terrorist release of the virus after the
disease is eradicated, it may be necessary to continue vaccination indefinitely
or at least to stockpile the vaccine. If such measures are taken, they would
greatly reduce the financial benefits of eradication, the so-called
Q: (1) How does one determine if a country is complying with the ban on
creating offensive biological weapons? There does not seem to be any form of
unbiased international monitoring for biological weapons manufacturing and
research. So how was the global assessment for biological warfare technologies
made? How can we determine the difference between propaganda and solid military
(2) It appears that a ban on creating offensive biological weapons might limit
the ability to test defenses to biological weapons if one could only test these
defenses against existing biological weapons. Is the existing ban on offensive
biological weapons only focused on the capacity to wage a large-scale
biological attack and thus allowing for the limited creation of new biological
weapons? Does the international treaty against biological weapons allow for
research to create new biological offensive weapons? If so, how does one
differentiate between research and the capacity to wage a biological attack,
especially if one is dealing with a virulent or very contagious biological
A: Because the materials and equipment used to make biological weapons are
"dual use," meaning that they have both offensive and peaceful applications, it
can be very difficult to determine if an ostensibly legitimate facility such as
a vaccine plant is secretly producing biological weapons. Still, long-term
monitoring of a suspect facility may provide telltale indicators of illicit
production, particularly if inspectors or spies obtain on-site access.
The prohibitions in the [Biological Weapons Convention] are based on an
assessment of intent; that is, microbial pathogens are permitted if the types
and quantities being used are consistent with peaceful, therapeutic, or
protective purposes. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to draw a clear
distinction between offensive and defensive research. Any development of actual
biological weapons, including genetically engineered agents and delivery
systems, would probably be a violation of the spirit if not the letter of the
Q: Why do some diseases require thousands of the organism to infect or make a
person sick, and others, like Marburg, for example, can make you sick with just
a single organism? And how do scientists figure that out?
A: On this question I would defer to a microbiologist.
Q: The gene for the toxin caused by B. anthracis is transferred by a
gene on the plasmid. What are the chances that a more non-virulent Bacillus
specie can obtain that same gene via conjugation with a B. anthracis
A: Again, I would defer to a microbiologist on this question.