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Patrick with sprayer Seven and a half grams of anthrax could infect everyone in a 14-story building. What Bill Patrick sprays here, though, is a harmless simulant.
Interviews with Biowarriors
Bill Patrick

Dr. William C. Patrick III spent over three decades at Fort Detrick, Maryland, the U.S. Army's base for biological weapons research. From 1951 to 1969, he developed germ agents for warfare. When the U.S. officially ended its offensive program in 1969, Patrick's work turned to germ defenses.

Here, he reflects back on these years with New York Times reporter Bill Broad and NOVA producer Kirk Wolfinger. And he demonstrates for NOVA's cameras how a biological agent such as anthrax might be used.

NOVA: Tell us a bit about this demonstration equipment. Why do you have it on hand?

Patrick: About 15 years ago when I retired from federal service, the whole area of biological warfare and bioterrorism was heating up. I happened to attend a lecture on this subject by so-called "experts," and I was distressed to learn that there was a big disconnect between what I learned in the old U.S. biological program and what these people were saying. So I went back home and generated several lectures to demonstrate, without a shadow of a doubt, the feasibility of biological warfare.

At my first lecture, I noticed that my class wanted to talk about BW [biological weapons], but they didn't have any concept of what a BW agent looked like.

NOVA: So that's what this stuff is?

Patrick: Yes. As chief of the old product development division, I had my scientists and technicians make simulant powders that could be used [for tests] in place of the real thing. Now this is a simulant that represents anthrax. It is a freeze-dried powder of Bacillus globigii [a different type of bacteria].

Broad: So if this got wet, would it come back to life?

Patrick: Oh, it very much should, yes. But you would disseminate this as a dry powder. It is small particle size. It has very good "free flow" properties.

Broad: How many little bugs are in there?

Patrick: There are a trillion noninfectious spores per gram in this.

Broad: Per gram?

Patrick: Per gram.

Broad: If this was anthrax and you had a good ability to disseminate it, what kind of damage could you do to a town?

Patrick: Oh. This happens to be seven and a half grams of simulant. Seven and a half grams could infect everybody in a 14-story building.

"Fortunately for us, not all powders are created equal."

Here is another material. Now it is also a simulant for anthrax, but fortunately for us, not all powders are created equal. This is small particle size, but it has an electrostatic charge. You couldn't disseminate this. If the technology is not there, you are not going to get an effective BW agent.

NOVA: Why would you want to freeze-dry anthrax?

Patrick: Dry agents are much more difficult to prepare than liquid agents, but once you get them, they're very easily disseminated. You can see it doesn't take very much energy to create a very small particle in aerosol. [He hand pumps a mist out of the sprayer.]

Broad: Wow, it sails. It looks like smoke.

Patrick: It is. It is a very small particle size powder.

Broad: About how far could that go?

Patrick: Oh, this could go several kilometers downwind.

Broad: So more than a mile?

Patrick: Yes.

Broad: I'm glad it is just a simulant. Bill, how many places have you taken this stuff? Have you gone through security checkpoints?

"People who man these X-ray machines don't have a clue what to look for in terms of a BW agent."

Patrick: This bag with all my noninfectious simulants and crude disseminators has been through all the major airports of this country. I've also been through the State Department in Washington, D.C. I've been through the Center for Disease Control. I thought surely those people would stop me.

Broad: Through their security checkpoint?

Patrick: Through their security checkpoint. I've never been stopped. I've been lecturing since 1985, and I suspect that I've been through 50 airports.

Broad: And you got waved through every time?

Patrick: Every time. And this concerns me. I would feel a lot more comfortable if someone were to challenge me. It brings home the point very, very dramatically that people who man these X-ray machines at airports and big buildings don't have a clue what to look for in terms of a BW agent and a very simple disseminating device.

Technical hurdles
Broad: Is this hard or easy for anybody to do? What does it take to develop the agent and get to the point that you can disseminate it?

"What concerns me are graduate students and professors in microbiology and chemical engineering."

Patrick: Well that's a difficult question for me because it is second nature to me. But it is a little bit more difficult for a Tom, Dick, and Harry type of terrorist. Now what concerns me are graduate students and professors in microbiology and chemical engineering who have a better appreciation of the finer points of detail. If they were to get disgruntled, I think they could, with a little trial and error, come up with a reasonably acceptable BW agent. But, they are going to have problems with its dissemination.

Broad: So there are not common industrial processes?

Patrick: No. No.

NOVA: What does it take to develop a full-scale biological weapons program?

Patrick: Most people think you concentrate on just the agent, but you've also got to have parallel lines of research and development of munitions and delivery systems.

Broad: It is many steps down that road to do it right?

"The Iraqis had made a lot more progress on the agent side than in terms of weaponizing the agent."

Patrick: Many steps. For example, as I observed the Iraqi program on one of the inspection tours, I felt the Iraqis had made a lot more progress on the agent side than in terms of weaponizing the agent with an effective munition and delivery system.

Broad: How do you weaponize a biological agent?

Patrick: Well, I'd rather not get into that, fellow. [Laughter]

NOVA: Can you give us a sense of how complex it is?

Patrick: Yeah. First, you've got to be able to mass-produce the organism on an industrial scale. Now, a lot of organisms grow well in the laboratory in very small containers, but you start having problems when you expand these organisms into a 3,000 or a 5,000 gallon fermenter. The conditions are entirely different.

Then you've got to have industrial equipment like centrifuges and ion exchange resins to purify and concentrate the organism from its growth substrate. And then, finally, you've got to be able to stabilize the organism and freeze dry it, or dry it by some other means like spraying it—the Iraqis concentrated primarily on spray drying.

Broad: This was nasty stuff.

Patrick: Yes, it is.

Start of the U.S. program
NOVA: Let's step back in time. Tell me about the history of the U.S. biological weapons program.

"The only way to demonstrate feasibility was to actually get in the production of agents."

Patrick: In 1942, the United States initiated its biological warfare program with a commission headed up by a Dr. Merck of Merck, Incorporated. Intelligence indicated that both the Japanese and the Germans were investigating biological warfare. Dr. Merck reported back to President Roosevelt that biological warfare seemed feasible, but the only way to demonstrate that feasibility was to actually get in the production of agents. Then, the research and development center, Camp Detrick, came on stream in 1943.

For a short period of time we had an island off the coast of Mississippi where field tests were conducted, but that didn't last too long. There were too many mosquitoes and other arthropods that could probably take up some of the diseases we were disseminating and spread them to our civilian population. So this testing area was moved out to Dugway Proving Ground [in the Utah desert] about 1944.

Now as a part of the program, we initiated a production facility at Pine Bluff Arsenal [in Arkansas], and it came on stream right after the end of the war.

NOVA: How big was the U.S. program at its biggest?

Patrick: Well, we hit our peak during the war years, about 1944. We had about 3,000 military and civilian people working on the BW program. Following the war, the program almost went belly up, no funding was provided. Detrick almost closed. And it wasn't until the Korean conflict that people started thinking about biological warfare again.

"A lot of people in our country accepted the fact that we had used BW in the Korean peninsula."

The Chinese Government accused the United States of using biological warfare in the Korean peninsula. Of course, these charges were false. The Chinese communists had used mosquitoes and roaches rolling around on frozen ground as evidence for a BW attack. And if you know anything about aerosols and BW, you realize that this was just pure tripe. Just pure tripe. But a lot of people in our country accepted the fact that we had used BW in the Korean peninsula.

Clues to the Soviet program
NOVA: When did you become aware that the Soviets were dabbling in this? Was it back in the Cold War days?

Patrick: Yeah. In the 1950s managers and supervisory personnel were provided lectures and photographs showing that the Soviet Union had an area in the Aral Sea [on Vozrozhdeniye Island] that looked very much like Dugway [the U.S. test area]. This was the first direct evidence that the Soviet Union was engaged in biological aerosol testing. BW field test areas have things that are common to them and nothing else.

Broad: What are they?

Patrick: Well, it is your grid areas, and how they lay it out, because you've got to measure the aerosol as it comes over an area.

Broad: And what is on the grid?

Patrick: Well, you have samplers on the grid. They sample the air as the aerosol comes along.

Broad: And there would be concentric circles that would go out farther and farther?

"BW field test areas have things that are common to them and nothing else."

Patrick: Yes. Yes.

Broad: How big would a grid be?

Patrick: Well, our last concentric circle was about 20 miles out of Dugway.

Broad: So you could see this from space?

Patrick: Oh, sure, absolutely.

Broad: That's big. So when our first astronauts are looking down on Utah, there is the bull's eye?

Patrick: Yes. Now, until quite recently Dugway was a forgotten post. But now this area has become active again, trying to develop defensive measures to combat the use of biological warfare by terrorist nations or by a terrorist.

Defensive measures
NOVA: At Detrick were you interested in defensive measures?

Patrick: We had a very extensive bio-defense program at Detrick. The number one priority of our program was to develop a sensor that could sniff out and ring an alarm that an aerosol of infectious particles was passing. But the technology up through the 1960s, at least, was not available to do this. Now, perhaps, the technology is moving to the point where it is possible.

Broad: Why would that be a good thing?

"The number one priority of our program was to develop a sensor that could sniff out infectious particles."

Patrick: When you have a BW attack, the earlier the treatment, the more people that you are going to save. For example, there is a very short window of treating [inhalation] anthrax. You've got to start treating exposed people within 24-48 hours of the exposure, before the overt symptoms of infection appear. Once the infection has generated a fever and you have shortness of breath, you can give all the antibiotics in the world, but the organism has released these toxins, and they kill you.*

*Editor's Note: Recent anthrax cases have shown that victims can recover after overt symptoms appear, but they must receive aggressive treatment.

NOVA: You started working on defensive measures at Detrick after Nixon closed down the offensive program in 1969. Was your heart in it or were you still basically a weaponeer at heart?

"I had to rethink my mission."

Patrick: Well, I was basically a weaponeer. I had to rethink my mission.

Broad: Did President Nixon do the right thing?

Patrick: I don't know. I've often wondered about that question. At the time I felt very strongly that he was doing the wrong thing. I think one of the best defenses that this country can have is to have an offensive capability so that if someone uses BW on us, that we can return in kind.

Broad: That was the policy, right? No first use?

Patrick: No first use. Let them know that it is there. It is a big stick, basically.

The pathogens of choice
NOVA: At Detrick, what were the pathogens of choice?

"Our favorite weapon was freeze-dried tularemia."

Patrick: Well, we investigated a lot of organisms as potential BW agents. We weaponized anthrax. We weaponized tularemia. Also, Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus and Q fever. [For more information on these diseases, see Agents of Bioterror.]

NOVA: Was anthrax considered a weapon of choice by the U.S. program?

Patrick: We certainly developed anthrax early on, but our favorite weapon was freeze-dried tularemia. And the reason for this is that we could modify or change the biological decay of tularemia from a high rate of decay to a much lower rate of decay.

Broad: Decay means how long it stays alive?

Patrick: How long it stays alive. How viable it remains in the aerosol.

Broad: And anthrax lives for years?

"God forbid you would infect the very people that you are trying to protect."

Patrick: Anthrax does not decay biologically in aerosol. So, for example, if you were to release anthrax around friendly troops, around friendly populations, the wind might change, God forbid, and you would infect the very people that you are trying to protect.

Broad: And tularemia, on the other hand, you could make it decay? So, that in the course of a day, it would all be—

Patrick: It would all be gone, yes.

Broad: What about plague, you know, the Black Death of the 14th century? To a lot of people, that leaps to mind as the ultimate biological nightmare.

Patrick: Well, we looked at plague. We studied plague very hard and we could never at that point in time keep the organism virulent. So we did not solve the riddle.

Broad: But haven't we learned subsequently that the Russians actually went wild down that road?

Patrick: Yes. When I interviewed Dr. Alibek, [Ken Alibek, former deputy chief of the Soviet's BW arsenal] I was surprised to learn that they had successfully weaponized plague. And he did a very nice piece of research to maintain its virulence all the way through the production phases.

"Had we been successful with plague, I do not think we would have weaponized it."

Now, let me say a little bit more about plague. Had we been successful with plague, I do not think we would have weaponized it. We learned how to produce smallpox also, but I don't think the United States government, and Fort Detrick in particular, would have authorized the weaponization of organisms that are contagious. We felt that we had enough problems controlling an aerosol—given wind and other meteorological conditions—without introducing a contagious agent that knows no restrictions.

Broad: And that's the case with plague. It is a wildfire, and it spreads by itself.

Patrick: It's a wildfire. And it can very easily come back and bite the very people that you are trying to defend.

NOVA: The Soviets didn't seem to have that problem with it?

"They concentrated primarily on lethal agents. We concentrated primarily on incapacitating agents."

Patrick: No, [in war scenarios] they targeted plague and smallpox against our major cities. And they felt that the thousands of miles of oceans between the United States and them would protect them, but I doubt that. I doubt that.

Broad: Does that bespeak a whole different philosophy?

Patrick: Well, if you look at their program, and I've talked to Dr. Alibek at length about this, they concentrated primarily on lethal agents. We concentrated primarily on incapacitating agents.

A case for biological warfare
NOVA: So, basically, was the whole U.S. BW program geared towards incapacitating an enemy?

Patrick: By and large, yes. In the '60s our program evolved to the point where we were concentrating primarily on incapacitating agents. The rationale for that, of course, is that it was a more humane way of infecting or inflicting problems on a population.

In addition, it takes more support people to take care of sick people—maybe 5 or 10 people to administer to the needs of someone who is sick. With a lethal agent that kills, it only takes two people to bury you, and then that is the end of that.

"I can make a very good case for biological warfare as a more humane way of fighting war."

I can make a very good case for biological warfare as a more humane way of fighting war than with the atom bomb and chemical warfare. We can incapacitate a population with less than 1 percent of the people becoming ill and dying. And then we take over facilities that are intact. When you bomb a country, you not only kill people but you destroy the very facilities that are needed to treat them—the electricity, water, all the infrastructure is gone when you bomb.

So, to my way of thinking, if you must have warfare, if you use incapacitating agents, it is more humane then what we refer to now as "conventional warfare" with bombs and conventional weapons.

"You open up Pandora's box."

Broad: In our research, we found a briefing that Eisenhower got where they walk through all that logic. They say the guys at Detrick are coming up with these fascinating new weapons that are in some respects humane and people are not killed and the infrastructure remains. He was fascinated by it too. But at the end of the briefing, he says, "As interesting as these are, there's a problem because if you use these humane weapons, your enemy might not get the distinction. They might retaliate with very lethal agents."

Patrick: Yeah. You open up Pandora's box.

Soviet spies
NOVA: What else did you learn about the Soviet program when you started de-briefing Ken Alibek?

"Whatever we did, the Soviet Union did six months later."

Patrick: When Dr. Alibek and I started talking, we became very, very good friends because the [scientific] problems that we had in the U.S. program were the same problems that the Soviet Union scientists had. And one day Ken said to me, "Bill," he said, "we had spies at Fort Detrick." I had never considered spies at Detrick. But he says, "If you look at the two programs, whatever we did, the Soviet Union did six months later."

If we worked on anthrax, six months later they worked on anthrax. If we picked up eastern equine encephalitis, they picked up eastern equine encephalitis. Whatever we did, they did.

I said, "Ken, when we did field tests in the Pacific, your Russian trawlers were always out there just hanging around, and probably hanging around the very area where the aerosol was going to go." I said, "Why was this?"

And he said, "Bill," he said, "this is long before my time." But he said, "From the gray beards that I talk to, they knew about what the United States was going to test, when it was going to test." He said, "We had these so-called fishing trawlers out there in the line of fire to gather in through samplers the very strain of organism that you were testing." And he said, "With that strain, we could build bigger and bigger vaccines."

"Our so-called top secret program was an open book, including large-scale field testing."

I was very dismayed at this because our so-called top secret program was an open book, including large-scale field-testing.

Broad: So the Soviets knew all about it. The American public didn't have a clue?

Patrick: The American public didn't have a clue, but the Soviet Union was well aware of everything that we were doing. You know, this country does a lot of things very, very well, but one thing we do not do is keep secrets very well, and that is true today.

Broad: Well, that is the nature of democracy.

Patrick: That is the nature of democracy. It is a penalty that you have to pay in order to have a democracy. Yeah, I wouldn't change it for anything in the world.

Horrors of the Soviet program
NOVA: What happened to the Soviet program in 1972? They signed the same international treaty the U.S. signed, ostensibly banning offensive BW research, didn't they?

Patrick: In 1972, just as they signed the Biological Convention, the Soviet Union expanded their program. Since they didn't have the United States to follow, they went out on their own. And at that point they started concentrating on lethal agents.

"They produced a very, very effective, scary product."

They weaponized anthrax. They weaponized smallpox. They weaponized Yersinia pestis or plague. They weaponized Marburg virus. They grew it to high concentrations in guinea pigs. Now, it takes a lot of guinea pigs to produce the amount of dry powder they had on hand when supposedly their program came to an end. They produced a very, very effective, scary product with Marburg virus.

NOVA: Why is that so scary?

Patrick: Because Marburg virus is lethal. It only takes one to two virus particles to cause an infection of the respiratory tract. There is no vaccine. And once you contract the disease, there is only one way to go, and that's death. So it is very scary.

NOVA: Tell us more about smallpox as a lethal agent.

Patrick: Well, smallpox from my point of view represents one of the ultimate weapons of biological warfare. You can grow it to a high concentration, and you can dry it, and it is very stable as a dried agent. And it requires only two or three virons, or virus particles, to produce a respiratory infection.

You also start an epidemic, because if you infect one person, this person will probably infect 20 to 30 people additionally. And these people, in turn, will infect a subsequent number of people, so smallpox, as well as plague, is something that keeps on giving and giving and giving.

"Smallpox, as well as plague, is something that keeps on giving and giving and giving."

Broad: When you looked into smallpox, how long would an agent like that last? I mean, weeks, months, years?

Patrick: A dry agent would last years.

Broad: Years?

Broad: And that would be true of any of these viruses?

Patrick: No. Not all organisms are inherently stable, but all organisms can have their storage stability factors increased by the use of chemicals.

NOVA: What are your feelings, in general, about the new wave of biology—genetic, recombinant DNA—taking the "oldie moldies" and making them worse than ever before.

Patrick: The new technology is certainly out there to be exploited if you want to exploit it for purposes of biological warfare. Through DNA technology, you could improve stability. You could reduce the number of cells required for infection by the respiratory route. It is all out there.

Broad: Is it needed though? Does it really get you anything?

"Instead of killing one million people at a strike, you could probably now kill 10 million."

Patrick: Well, instead of killing one million people at a strike, you could probably now kill 10 million with an improved BW agent through genetic engineering. But I think it is more difficult to do than what some people would have you believe, because you might improve one property at the expense of another.

We relied on Mother Nature, who is constantly providing new forms, new variations on an old strain. Look what Mother Nature did with Legionella pneumophila, the causative agent of Legionnaire's disease. When we had our program we were very acutely aware of these new and different outbreaks, and we would send a team to get that particular strain.

NOVA: How did you feel when you realized what the Soviets had done after the treaty was signed—that we followed our word, and they went ahead and they expanded their whole system?

Patrick: I was absolutely dismayed to learn from Dr. Alibek that the very year that they signed the convention in 1972 was the year that they took off and expanded their BW program. I was just dismayed to learn that because, once we [the U.S.] signed that treaty, we have not pursued an offensive BW program.

"It was worse than I ever had imagined."

I was just heartbroken to learn of the magnitude of that program and the huge quantities of agent that they could produce. If we could produce one metric ton of dried anthrax per year—and we thought that was pretty good—they were able to produce 4,500 metric tons of anthrax per year. The Soviet Union was mass producing this stuff in a vacuum drum dryer, and you can dry that stuff almost as fast as you can produce it.

We had no idea that they had such a massive program. We always wondered what they did, but having learned what they did, it was worse than I ever had imagined.

Learn more about the debriefing sessions between Bill Patrick and Ken Alibek. Or discover more chilling details of the Soviet program from "superbug" researcher Sergei Popov.

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