America's leaders are taking the threat of biological warfare very seriously.
So should you.
by Michael Crowley
It begins with a few innocent sneezes. On a Wednesday in March, dozens of
patients show up at hospitals around the Boston area complaining of high fever
and headaches. Many are coughing up phlegm. Most are diagnosed with the flu and
told to drink fluids and rest.
By Thursday, more people are showing up at area hospitals. Their symptoms are
worsening. Some have shaking chills, delirium, and fevers of up to 103 degrees.
Patients aren't responding to standard treatments. Many who had been treated
and released are returning in worsened condition. The sickest are coughing up
blood. Some are dying from circulatory collapse and respiratory failure. Doctors
suspect an outbreak of pneumonia.
By Friday morning, local hospitals are full. Now several doctors, nurses, and
EMS workers have taken ill. Mayor Tom Menino and other city officials convene
an emergency meeting. Fifty people are dead.
Things begin spiraling out of control. Dozens of people are dying in and
around Boston. Callers can't get through to EMS; hospitals are overrun. CNN and
the national networks lead their evening broadcasts with news of a mystery
epidemic in Boston. People begin to panic. Thousands rush to hospitals.
Thousands more flee the city, snarling the highways in a sustained rush hour of
Health officials, who have determined that many early patients had attended a
UMass hockey game on Tuesday night, refer to the unknown illness as "Hockey
Fever." Then, on Saturday morning, lab tests identify the disease. It is
Yersinia pestis. Bubonic plague. Transmittable through a simple cough,
the plague kills 100 percent of its untreated victims.
An act of biological terrorism at the rink is suspected. The finding touches
off an unprecedented chain of events. Governor Paul Cellucci declares a state
of emergency and calls in the National Guard. Logan Airport is shut down.
Police try to keep people off the streets.
On Saturday afternoon, a militia group takes responsibility for the attack.
That night, President Clinton delivers a national address to reassure the
public, but the media are in a frenzy and the airwaves are filled with reports
of varying accuracy. Possible plague cases start to emerge across the country.
Riots break out as people learn that supplies of vaccines and antibiotics are
severely limited. Black markets for medicine spring up. A nationwide panic sets
in. America is changed forever.
Needless to say, this scenario is fiction. But it is not the product of a
writer's wild imagination. It is precisely the nightmare imagined last week, at
a federally sponsored bioterrorism exercise here in Boston that involved more
than 200 local, state, and federal officials representing everything from the
mayor's office to local hospitals to the military (see "Target: Boston," right).
Preparing for the worst
The morning began like a science-fiction video game. An overhead slide
projector beamed the eerie universal symbol for "biohazard." Superimposed over
the red-and-blue background were two bright-yellow words: BEGIN PLAY.
With that, more than 200 government and medical leaders tried to imagine one
of the worst catastrophes that can strike a modern American city: an act of
bioterrorism. Before the day's federally sponsored exercise was over, 715
people were "dead" from the hypothetical plague attack -- enough to make it by
far the century's deadliest act of terrorism.
And it could have been worse. "This is what you'd call moderate," one
conference organizer admitted. "If this was more infectious, it'd go right
through the city."
To watch Thursday's daylong drill was to appreciate just how catastrophic even
a "moderate" bioterrorist attack would be, and how difficult it would be to
manage such a crisis with any semblance of order. From keeping emergency "first
responders" healthy to distributing medicine to simply figuring out who was in
charge, one logistical nightmare after another presented itself. It was
reassuring to see the city's leaders identify weaknesses they hadn't
contemplated before. But in the end, one was left to wonder how well anyone
could ever prepare for something like this.
The drill was the work of the defense department's nationwide "Domestic
Preparedness" program, which for the past two years has been training officials
in 120 American cities to prepare for chemical, biological, and nuclear
terrorism. The list of attendees was a testament to how seriously Boston views
the bioterrorist threat. It included representatives from Boston mayor Tom
Menino's office, the Boston police and fire departments, EMS, the National
Guard, the FBI, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and its state
and city offshoots -- even the US Department of Defense. Perhaps even more
significant was the presence of dozens of health officials from just about
every major Boston-area medical institution, from Beth Israel and Mass General
Hospitals to the city and state departments of health.
The exercise consisted of three "modules," in which a day-by-day sequence of
events was laid out by an MC of sorts. There were such creepily realistic
flourishes as a fake "News 8 Special Report," photographs of Paul Cellucci
"declaring" a state of emergency, and an audiotaped "address" from President
Clinton (borrowed from the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing). Even the
terrorists were conceived with an almost literary flourish. The attack was the
work of the "Red, White, and Blue Militia," who claimed responsibility with a
fax declaring: "We only have to be lucky once. You have to be lucky always."
Things weren't so organized during the "caucus sessions" between these
narrated segments, in which the attendees were charged with figuring out just
how in hell they would respond to the crisis. What was clear was that, in
addition to making people sick, a bioterrorist attack would touch off
widespread logistical chaos with frightening implications. For instance, it
became apparent as the plague spread that overwhelmed medical personnel would
be painfully slow to remove dead bodies from homes around the city. People
would be living with the deceased for hours, even days. In response, a Boston
Emergency Management Agency official made an attempt at morbid humor: "We have
called Monty Python in case we need that 'Bring Out Your Dead' tape."
The list of challenges goes on. Medical officials would have to brace for
hospitals to be swamped, not just by infected victims but also by thousands of
the "worried well." The disease would have to be rooted out not only from
humans but also from rats and fleas. Public areas such as the Hynes Convention
Center and South Boston's World Trade Center would need to be converted somehow
into triage centers. An entire squad of press flacks would need to work
full-time to fight media misinformation.
The day's biggest unresolved question, however, was the most vital of all.
Who, exactly, would be in charge? Who would make decisions about whether to
close airports, where to send supplies, how to ration medicine? The answer was
never entirely clear. It might be the mayor, the governor, the FBI, FEMA, or
the White House itself. About half a dozen agencies announced their plans to
set up all manner of command posts and emergency headquarters, but none seemed
to trump all the others. Indeed, just to absorb the dialogue of the caucus
sessions was to appreciate the prevailing confusion of the day:
Who's gonna respond?. . . . You're gonna need to have
the entire 101st Airborne there to hold off people storming the place for
medication. . . . Do we have
masks?. . . . Fold a handkerchief over six times and wear
that. . . . Is Massport here?. . . .
Stay off the roads. . . . We are going to lock down
the state. . . . I just want everyone to listen to
me. . . . Who's in charge?. . . .
Oh, great. . . .
Fortunately, it was all just a test. Unfortunately, however, it's not such a
far-fetched scenario. Getting hold of the plague isn't all that difficult: just
ask an Ohio white supremacist named Larry Wayne Harris. In May 1995, Harris,
then a member of the ultra-right-wing group Aryan Nations, acquired three vials
of freeze-dried Yersina pestis from a Maryland laboratory -- through a
simple mail order.
For most people, biological weapons are an abstract, even far-fetched,
concept. But Thursday's exercise -- one of dozens being conducted nationwide --
is just a glaring confirmation that America has moved beyond debating whether
the threat exists. We are now preparing for it. With the support of billions of
dollars in new spending, hundreds of the nation's top policy experts, health
officials, and military officers are now focused full-time on the threat of
bioterrorism. Unnoticed by most ordinary people, they are developing vaccines,
training local officials, and scrutinizing illness patterns. In its scope,
urgency, and, perhaps, futility, this new national effort is reminiscent of the
civil-defense programs of the early Cold War. Indeed, the people who know
biological weapons best say they present a threat to the United States unseen
since the Berlin Wall fell. Former CIA director James Woolsey speaks for these
people when he calls bioterrorism "the single most dangerous threat to our
national security in the foreseeable future."
Far deadlier than chemical arms, much simpler and cheaper than nuclear bombs,
there is a vicious simplicity to germ weapons. They are invisible. They have no
odor or taste. They are extremely lethal. A hundred pounds of anthrax,
effectively dispersed, could kill 100,000 people. Twice that amount, spread
over a wider area, could leave a million dead in a week. An infectious germ,
such as smallpox, might spread throughout the country within days. With panic
and chaos complementing sickness and death, the impact of a major bioweapons
attack could be equivalent to that of a limited nuclear exchange.
Americans have lived with the threat of nuclear Armageddon since the 1950s.
That danger still undoubtedly exists, but the collapse of the Soviet Union has
clearly diminished it. Now the nuclear threat has been replaced with something
that is even more frightening, because it is easier to imagine its happening.
Bioterrorism, Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-West Virginia) said this week, "is as
great a threat or a greater threat than the Soviet Union posed to us."
And so we will begin to adopt a new lexicon for a new kind of evil. The names
of the living weapons will inevitably become familiar to us: anthrax, Ebola,
Q fever, smallpox, botulism, plague, dengue fever. Just as we once
confronted the horrible details of the thermal pulse, the blast wave, and
radioactive fallout, now we must acquaint ourselves with words like
pathogen, incubation, transmittability. Where we once
dealt in kilotons and megatons, now we will count in grams and kilograms. This
is the vocabulary of the new "unthinkable."
Biological weapons kill in particularly cruel ways. Where the violence of a
bomb is instant, a germ weapon brings death slowly and gruesomely. The US
military acknowledges about two dozen unclassified varieties of bioweapon. But
an especially deadly few stand out as prime threats.
Anthrax may be the best known of the germ weapons. Its name is taken from
anthracis, the Greek word for coal, because of the running,
black-scabbed sores that appear on the body before it causes shock, coma, and
death. Anthrax kills 80 percent of its untreated victims, and even a few
microscopic spores can be lethal. When a gram of anthrax was accidentally
released from a Soviet bioweapons plant in 1979, 68 people downwind died.
Smallpox kills only about a third of its unvaccinated victims. But, unlike
anthrax, it is contagious. And its symptoms are even more gruesome. Smallpox
victims spew black vomit, bleed internally, and develop flesh-scarring pustules
across their face and body. Smallpox is untreatable, and the world stopped
making vaccines in 1980, when the disease was eradicated from nature. But it
lives on in loosely guarded Russian labs.
Immortalized in Richard Preston's 1995 book The Hot Zone, Ebola is one
of a family of awful diseases known as viral hemorrhagic fevers. These are
perhaps the scariest of all the potential bioweapons, although they are thought
to be the hardest to harness. The strain of Ebola that killed 245 people in
Zaire in 1995, for instance, causes virulently infectious blood to pour from
every orifice, including the pores of the skin, which essentially liquefies. No
vaccine exists for Ebola, which killed 92 percent of its victims in Zaire,
and which can be transmitted with a simple cough.
Although the United States and Soviet Union conducted hundreds of Cold War-era
tests to convert diseases like these into weapons, it hardly takes a world
superpower to make a deadly germ weapon. A single germ attack, though, can be
enough to cripple a superpower.
There are three basic steps to developing bioweapons. First, you need to
acquire germ samples, which can be ordered from many labs with some bogus
credentials and a few thousand dollars. Next, you must weaponize your germs,
typically by making a dried powder of tiny particles that will float through
the air and be inhaled by your victims. A bioengineer with some basic -- and
perfectly legal -- agricultural lab equipment can handle that. Finally, you
need a way to spray your brew into the air. Again, slightly modified
agricultural equipment will do.
Once you've built your killer device, delivery can be as simple as donning a
mask and driving your van through a downtown area for an afternoon. Then, sit
back and wait a couple of days for the first panicky news bulletins. What is
most triumphantly evil about biological weapons is that an attack from them is
apparent only once sick people start pouring into hospitals. And by then it's
often too late to save the dying.
No, it's not easy to launch a bioattack. But it's easy enough that the threat
is worth taking very seriously. Easy enough that Bill Clinton himself told
the New York Times in January that he's spent some late nights anxiously
imagining how a crop duster might spray germ weapons over a mass gathering on
the Washington Mall.
Of course, a terrorist might prefer to attack a specific building. It's an
easier feat to pull off -- no worries about wind and weather, for instance. And
in an enclosed space, the mortality rate can quadruple. A few dozen liters of
liquid anthrax piped into the ventilation system of the FleetCenter during a
sold-out Celtics game, for instance, could easily kill 16,000 people.
Fighting terrorism might mean curtailing freedoms
In the 1998 action thriller The Siege, Bruce Willis plays an Army
general who leads soldiers into New York City to impose a state of martial law
after a wave of Islamic terrorism. Muslims are interned en masse, and Willis
metes out wartime justice, torturing and murdering when necessary.
Now life is threatening to imitate art, as the Pentagon pushes a plan to
create a new position -- a military leader who would be charged with responding
to major terrorist attacks on American soil, including those involving
chemical, nuclear, and biological weapons.
The Pentagon says its new proposal will hardly lead to tanks rolling through
city streets; the idea is simply to use the military's vast resources and
logistical muscle to rush supplies and personnel to a crisis-stricken area. But
civil libertarians warn that the new proposal foreshadows further military
encroachment into domestic affairs.
"The Congress ought to reject any proposal to further involve the military in
civilian law-enforcement efforts," says Greg Nojeim, legislative counsel for
the American Civil Liberties Union. "When we've called in the troops in the
past, the results have been disastrous. The internment of Japanese-Americans
during World War II was conducted by the military."
Critics say that the specter of catastrophic terrorism has been used recently
to justify several new limitations on civil liberties. Since 1996, the
president and Congress have given the FBI broad new powers to conduct
wiretapping, trace telephone calls, and obtain business records. The government
has also expanded its ability to deport aliens and deny entry to immigrants
suspected of being terrorists.
"In the context of fighting crime, the president's record on civil liberties
has been nothing short of a disaster," says Nojeim.
Despite such howls, however, the Clinton administration is open about the fact
that hard choices are on the way. In an interview with the Army Times
last October, Secretary of Defense William Cohen said that "terrorism is
escalating to the point that Americans soon may have to choose between civil
liberties and more-intrusive means of protection."
Some defenders of the new federal powers say they're a small price to pay to
fend off anthrax, nerve gas, and suitcase-sized nuclear bombs, and that they're
but a fraction of what the country could expect from the government in the
aftermath of a serious terrorist attack. But civil libertarians remain
skeptical. Says Nojeim: "We're trying to keep scenes from movies like The
Siege in the theaters, and off the streets."
And remember that anthrax is noncontagious, meaning that only people who had
actually breathed the initial germ weapon would fall ill. The consequences of
dispersing a furiously contagious virus such as Ebola at New York's Kennedy
Airport -- from which unknowingly infected victims would be spread out to every
corner of the globe -- are nearly impossible to grasp.
Death is only part of the formula, however. A major act of bioterrorism would
almost certainly touch off panic, riots, and looting. Entire urban populations
would evacuate -- in 1994, 500,000 people fled a feared plague epidemic in the
Indian city of Surat. The very rule of law would be jeopardized.
Over the longer term, medical and other costs would be staggering, possibly
running into the billions. And, finally, America would confront massive
psychological fallout. New restrictions on civil liberties might well be
demanded or simply imposed (see "Taking Liberties," right). Shock, paranoia,
and xenophobia would alter our society. Daily life would never be the same.
The vital question, then, is whether anyone is both able and willing to unleash
biological weapons on an innocent civilian population. Nobody knows for sure.
But a mounting pile of evidence suggests that the answer is yes.
Biological weapons are hardly new. They can be traced back as far as the
ancient Greeks, who threw rotting animal corpses into their enemies' wells.
Fourteenth-century Tartar soldiers catapulted the dead bodies of
plague-infected comrades over their enemies' city walls. In 1763 the British
commander Sir Jeffrey Amherst tried to whittle down America's native population
by giving smallpox-infested blankets to Indian tribes.
During World War II, Japan used an elaborate bioweapons program to attack
Chinese cities and fatally infect some 10,000 prisoners. Even the US has seen
bioterrorism: in 1984 an Oregon cult spread salmonella on restaurant salad
bars, sickening 750 people in a weird scheme to disrupt an election.
Today, most nations have renounced the use of biological weapons. America shut
down its own extensive program in 1972. But around the world, bioweapons still
exist by the tons -- enough to kill billions of people.
Russia is the world's leading holder of these germ weapons. The former Soviet
Union is believed to have produced more than 30 tons of dried anthrax spores,
tons of smallpox, and dozens of varieties of other bioweapons -- perhaps even
nightmarish, specially engineered germ strains that could combine, say, the
virulence of Ebola with the infectiousness of smallpox; Ken Alibek, a former
head of the Soviet bioweapons program, says Russia has developed just such an
"Ebolapox." The Soviets even mass-manufactured a bioweapon from blood and
tissue samples of a government scientist who was mortally infected by an
Ebola-like virus he had been experimenting with. So who's keeping an eye on all
this stuff? In many cases, scientists and guards who may be disgruntled,
underpaid -- and easily bribed.
We also know that by 1995 Iraq had produced half a million liters of such
biological agents as botulinum, anthrax, ricin, and aflatoxin -- theoretically
enough to wipe out entire nations. The Iraqis mounted anthrax and botulinum on
bombs and missiles, and had designed a remote-controlled jet outfitted with
aerosol sprayers. By the time United Nations arms inspectors became aware of
the scope of the Iraqi program, all evidence of it had vanished. It is thought
to be hidden somewhere in the desert.
Meanwhile, almost every enemy of the United States, including Iran,
Libya, Syria, and North Korea, is in pursuit of bioweapons. But using
bioweapons against the US is a high-stakes risk for a foreign nation, which
could expect a swift nuclear retaliation.
Terrorists, on the other hand, are harder to trace and are a nearly impossible
target for retaliation. And the ominous fact is that bioweapons technology is
becoming easier for individuals and small groups to acquire. This is a dark
side of the biotechnology revolution of the mid-1970s: technological advances
have made bioweapons development cheaper and safer. Samples of bacteria and
viruses can readily be acquired from "germ banks" created to aid research. The
number of scientists with the right background to develop bioweapons is
booming. Many of them are in the former Soviet Union, where they may be willing
to peddle their services to the highest bidder. But you don't even need a PhD
to build a germ bomb. "Biological agents don't require rare finances, they
don't require rare resources," Princeton University professor Steven Block
explained this month at a congressional hearing on bioterrorism. "They don't
even require rare intelligence."
As for the criticism that to publicize the threat -- in an article such as
this, for example -- encourages would-be terrorists, the authors Richard
Falkenrath, Robert Newman, and Bradley Thayer make a salient point in
America's Achilles' Heel (MIT Press, 1998): "[i]t would be a rare
[terrorist group] that is intelligent enough to carry out a covert [nuclear,
biological, or chemical] attack successfully, yet stupid enough not to have
thought of the possibility on its own."
The spread of biotechnology is alarming at a time when a new breed of
terrorism seems to be emerging, one committed less to traditional political
goals and more to pure violence, death, and anarchy. Religious fundamentalists,
political radicals, and millennial Armageddonists all come to mind. The most
frightening example of all is the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo, the group
responsible for the 1995 nerve-gas attack in the Tokyo subway that killed 12
people and sickened 5500. Aum's goals were simple: to kill millions of people,
create global anarchy, and take over the world. Well funded and well organized,
the group managed to build up giant stockpiles of chemical and biological
weapons without detection until it actually staged an attack. (Aum was not
broken up after the Tokyo subway incident. It still has some 18,000 followers
in Russia and assets of more than a billion dollars.)
We don't know how many groups like Aum may exist. We do know that America has
no shortage of zealous enemies, such as the Saudi superterrorist Osama bin
Laden. Saddam Hussein may be helping bin Laden acquire bioweapons, and recent
reports suggest that bin Laden may have mail-ordered deadly germs from labs in
the former Eastern Bloc.
It's true that there are few historical examples of major terrorist attacks on
American soil. But the end of the Cold War, and the proliferation of technology
and information, limit the relevance of historical examples. We have already
seen the beginnings of the change, not just with Aum Shinrikyo but with the
World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. As
former Georgia senator Sam Nunn put it after the Tokyo attack, "The world
has entered a new era."
Or listen to the president himself. Bill Clinton told the Times that a
threatened or actual chemical or biological attack in this country is "a
near-certainty." While such a catastrophe is not necessarily imminent, Clinton
says, it is "likely to happen sometime in the next few years."
Sitting in a Pennsylvania warehouse is the entire US stockpile of smallpox
vaccine. It amounts to less than 10 million doses.
That might sound like a lot, until you consider that smallpox vaccinations
ended more than 20 years ago. And since smallpox inoculation isn't permanent,
virtually none of the country's 270 million people are immune to the
fast-spreading disease. A major smallpox outbreak would force the president to
make agonizing choices about how to distribute the lifesaving doses.
Our supplies of other vaccines and antibiotics are just as inadequate. The
country's limited supplies of anthrax vaccine are reserved for military and
government personnel. As the New Republic reported last week, the
Pentagon must approve every individual civilian request for vaccination (which
it rarely does). And for many potential germ weapons, the US has no vaccines at
The president and Congress have been trying to address these
potentially catastrophic shortcomings through vast amounts of new spending and
preparation. Clinton's latest budget would double spending for preparedness
against chemical and biological weapons to $2.8 billion, including nearly
$400 million to research pathogens and develop vaccines and more than
$50 million to build the nation's vaccine stockpiles. He has created a new
"anti-terrorism czar" to oversee America's defenses against chemical,
biological, and nuclear attacks. All 2.4 million members of the US
military are now being vaccinated against anthrax (the president won't reveal
whether he himself has been inoculated). The Pentagon has even asked Clinton to
create a new military unit that would manage a domestic terrorist crisis.
But not everyone is convinced that the bioterrorism threat merits so
much money, effort, and alarm. Some experts argue that the ease of making and
using bioweapons has been exaggerated.
"We're not talking about minimally trained biology students cooking up this
stuff in their bathtub," says Michael Moodie of the Chemical and Biological
Arms Control Institute in Washington, DC. "Maybe growing the agent is not a
particularly difficult process, but that's not nearly the same as a weapons
"I think there's still a tendency to cast this publicly in thriller-writer
terms," adds Moodie, who is perhaps thinking of The Cobra Event, Richard
Preston's best-selling 1997 novel imagining an Iraqi-sponsored biological
attack on New York City. President Clinton was reportedly so alarmed by the
book -- in which victims of an engineered "supervirus" eat their own tongues
and gouge out their eyes -- that he ordered a report on its plausibility.
And while there has never been a successful act of bioterrorism, we do know
of some bungled attempts. On at least nine occasions, Aum Shinrikyo tried and
failed to use germ weapons; these efforts included a 1990 plan to spray
botulinum toxin on the Japanese Parliament and a botched 1993 attack on the
wedding of Japan's crown prince. Considering that Aum was competent, well
financed, and determined to cause a biological catastrophe, its failures are
The evidence is also limited that terrorist groups actually want bioweapons.
Experts suggest that terrorists may be daunted by cost, technical complexity,
the consequences of getting caught, or the fear of getting sick themselves. And
even terrorists might have moral boundaries: in 1995 an Aum Shinrikyo member
who was supposed to fill sprayer-fitted briefcases with botulinum for a planned
subway attack was struck by a guilty conscience and substituted water for the
In the lab
MIT pits brains against germs
Of all the things that make biological weapons so fiendish, nothing may be more
alarming than their invisibility. Bioweapons announce their presence through
mass outbreaks of disease. But by the time sick victims fill the hospitals, the
best opportunities to contain the catastrophe will have been lost.
A little early warning, however, could save thousands of lives. People
downwind from an attack could stay indoors, or wear $5 gas masks. Emergency
responders and hospital staff could immediately take precautions to avoid
infection and to quarantine victims. Medical supplies and backup emergency
personnel could arrive from around the country before they're needed.
That's why federal scientists are rushing to develop "biodetectors," high-tech
devices that can offer precious warning that an attack is under way. The
military has developed some basic biodetectors, but so far the machines have
been too expensive and slow for widespread use. In a National Press Club
address this month, Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson declared biodetector
research to be a top national priority: "Within three years I want our labs to
develop biological-agent detectors small enough to fit into the hand of a
fireman or cop," Richardson said.
That's exactly the goal of one of the world's leading biodetector projects,
now being conducted at Lincoln Laboratories in Lexington, Massachusetts. Drab
on the outside, teeming with government secrets on the inside, Lincoln Labs is
an X-Files kind of place. The mission of this federally funded arm of
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is to apply MIT brainpower to
everything from air-traffic control to ballistic-missile defense to tracking
potential "killer asteroids" on a collision course with the earth.
Led by a mild-mannered laser-technology expert named Charles Primmerman,
Lincoln Labs is trying to build a detector that is small enough and inexpensive
enough to be installed throughout cities, on military bases, and in high-risk
locations such as federal buildings and airports. "Detection," Primmerman says,
"is the cornerstone of biological defense."
Congress has already pumped a few million dollars into Primmerman's program,
which is one of several moving ahead at labs around the country. But
Primmerman's is considered one of the most advanced and promising in the nation
-- "real cutting-edge stuff," as one Senate national-security staffer puts
The scientific details of Primmerman's project are enough to frizzle the
layman's mind. But they can be boiled down to two basic elements. First, there
is detection. Primmerman has developed a prototype machine, which looks a
little like a silver-and-black microwave oven, that "breathes" surrounding air
by drawing it into a small chamber with a fan. Inside the chamber, a microlaser
shoots 10,000 pulses of ultraviolet light per second, scanning the air for
suspicious particles and setting off an alarm if any are found.
That, in relative terms, is the easy part. Far more difficult is the task of
identifying just what your detector has found -- crucial to knowing what kind
of precautions and medications to take.
To make that possible, Primmerman's team is working with MIT biologists who
are engineering special white blood cells, or B cells -- which the human
body uses to fight off infections -- that can act as living germ "sensors." The
idea is to create "smart" B cells that will attach only to a specific
germ. Thus, one type of B cell would react to anthrax, another to
botulinum, and so on.
To make an identification, the detector must be able to see which cells are
reacting to the suspicious air sample. A glowing-jellyfish gene will be
inserted into the B cells so that if they latch on to a germ particle they
will, quite simply, light up. Supersensitive cameras will "see" this reaction,
and the detector will report what it has found -- with a simple text display
that anyone could read. Ideally, the whole process takes less than a minute.
The biology in particular, Primmerman says, is still a long way from
completion. Yet the pressure is immense to deliver quickly. Bill Richardson
wants accurate detectors ready in time for the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake
City. And Primmerman appreciates the urgency.
"I don't think it would surprise anybody," he says in a scientific deadpan,
"if there were an attack this afternoon."
Given these caveats, some are asking whether the new bioterrorism scare is
simply the newest bogeyman to be trotted out by a Pentagon seeking to justify
its budget in a post-Cold War world. "How much of the alarm is feeding the
beached threat experts of the Cold War?" the journalist Peter Pringle recently
asked in the online magazine Slate. "How much . . . is the
threat industry acting like a new military-industrial complex of which we
Such Cold War shibboleths seem out of place in this debate, however. Bioweapons
come with their own set of rules unlike anything we've seen before. Although
the shadow of nuclear annihilation cast a permanent chill on life during the
Cold War, the logic that governed superpower confrontation always provided a
strange security. Mutual Assured Destruction was fittingly derided by its
acronym: MAD. It defied imagination and threatened the existence of life on
earth. But in the end, it kept the missiles in their silos.
Biological weapons involve no such logic. "This is quite the opposite of
`Mutual Assured Destruction,' " Princeton's Steven Block testified last
week. "This is David and Goliath. . . . One guy in a garage can
take down a giant."
Nothing is assured any longer. America must start coming to terms with a new
reality: we are vulnerable. Try as we might, we can never police every little
basement laboratory, every amoral mercenary with a bioengineering degree.
But there's much we can do to mitigate a potential attack, and perhaps even to
dissuade would-be terrorists by putting up a façade of readiness.
Clinton has wisely begun this work. But much more money is needed for medical
training and equipment, as well as for biodetection technology. (see "In the
Lab," right). Speedy identification and treatment of an anthrax attack could
raise the survival rate from 20 percent to 90 percent.
Real progress will also require Republicans in Congress to overcome their
small-minded isolationism and budget millions more to secure germ weapons in
Russia, redouble American intelligence overseas, and apply economic and moral
pressure through treaties, sanctions, and trade incentives to promote vigilance
in other countries. Harvard University's resident terrorism expert, Philip
Heymann, recommends that the UN publicize huge rewards for information about
bioterrorist activities. US leaders must also educate the public about the
danger, especially when it comes to explaining why American lives are at risk
in the skies of Iraq.
Still, we can never fully eliminate the threat -- or completely prepare for
it. An act of bioterrorism in an American city would profoundly alter our
national psyche. It would drape a new shroud of fear over every simple bout
with the flu. The familiar expression "Something's been going around" would
suddenly become loaded with terrifying implications. It's almost enough to make
one pine for the brutal simplicity of Mutual Assured Destruction. But then, the
Devil is always changing his form.
Michael Crowley can be reached at email@example.com.