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Ask the Expert
Responses from Dr. Jonathan Tucker

Set 1
Posted November 14, 2001
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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 bioterrorism?

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 future.

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?
Roger Banks

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.
Ana Blanco
Anthony, NM

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 pathogens.

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 supplier/manufacturer?

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? Thank you.

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 manufacturer.

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 "eradication dividend."

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 intelligence?

(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 weapon?

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 treaty.

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 bacterium?

A: Again, I would defer to a microbiologist on this question.

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