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
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
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
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"
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
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?
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 hurdlesBroad: 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
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
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. programNOVA: 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]
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
Clues to the Soviet programNOVA: 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
"BW field test areas have things that are common to them and
Patrick: Yes. Yes.
Broad: How big would a grid be?
Patrick: Well, our last concentric circle was about 20 miles out of
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
Defensive measuresNOVA: 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
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,
The pathogens of choiceNOVA: 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
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
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
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
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
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 warfareNOVA: 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 spiesNOVA: 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
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
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
Horrors of the Soviet programNOVA: What happened to the Soviet program in 1972? They signed the same
international treaty the U.S. signed, ostensibly banning offensive BW research,
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
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: 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
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