The Death Whisperer Series

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Saturday, June 14, 2008

Bioweaponry II

Yesterday I mentioned I would discuss how bioweapons are created. To clarify, I will NOT tell you how to make them. Rather I will discuss what has been published in the literature and recount some of the testimony of people like Serguei Popov, who for nearly two decades developed genetically engineered biological weapons for the Soviet Union.

Bioweapons can be developed for a number of intents. The first thing that comes to mind for most people is the intent to kill. Certainly weaponized smallpox, Ebola, or Marburg viruses or bacteria like Bacillus anthrasis (anthrax) or Yersinia pestis (plague) can accomplish this. Ebola virus, in its worst form, has a mortality rate around 80%. One of the problems faced by bioweaponeers is protecting themselves against their creations. For example, variants of weaponized plague contain multiple antibiotic resistance genes to increase their virulence and make it tougher to control. But that can backfire on the researcher working with the bug. For a look into probably the most advanced bioweapons program ever developed, that of the former Soviet Union, I recommend you read Ken Alibek's book "Biohazard." The Soviets did have accidents that cost the lives of both their scientists and innocent citizens near the installations where the research was conducted.

However, in a war, you don't necessarily have to kill your opponent to win, just incapacitate him. For these purposes bacteria like Burkholderia mallei (glanders disease), Francisella tularensis (tularemia or rabbit fever) or even bacteria like Shigella (dysentary) or Vibrio cholera (cholera) are possible weapons. While each may cause death, more frequently they make you really sick. Of course, it's hard to fight or function if you've got massive diarrhea.

Just so you won't think I'm giving ideas to terrorists, all of this is published in literature which may be found in science journals and online.

A more difficult area for bioweaponry is in the area of agriculture. There are several pathogens which I won't discuss for a number of reasons, which could be used to destroy food supplies. This is attractive from the point of view that they won't harm the researcher. However, administering them in a widespread manner would be very difficult.

So, why should we care about this? In 2005 at a conference examining the threat of bioterrorism, may U.S. scientists complained about the amounts of money being channeled into developing means of detecting and controlling a possible bioterrorist attack. Milton Leitenberg, a man with experience in the area insisted terrorist groups like Al Qaeda would not be a source of bioterrorist attacks because the record showed that almost all bioweaponeering had been done by state governments and militaries. (Currently, I work in cancer research, so there's no conflict of interest here.)

However, I personally do not believe that to be true. Today, the techniques and materials necessary for creating dangerous organisms are commodity items. The whereabouts of the bioweapons created by the former Soviet Union have not been addressed adequately. All one would need are seed stocks. But you don't necessarily even need the organism. In 2002, Eckard Wimmer reported the chemical synthesis of the 7,000 base pair poliovirus genome and demonstrated that it was infectious. InJanuary of this year, researchers at the Venter Institute reported synthesis of a synthetic Mycoplasma genome and successfully transferred it into a different Mycoplasma. The synthsized genome was 582,970 base pairs in length. Meaning? Smallpox is one of the largest viruses known with a genome size of approximately 190,000 base pairs.

DNA synthesizers are available on E-bay as is most lab equipment.

While the goals of a State-funded program may be far-reaching and may never come close to the former Soviet Union, the goals of a terrorist group are much more limited. They don't need to think in terms of huge program because the point of a terrorist attack is not to wipe out a country but to create terror. If a few hundred people died of smallpox in New York city, I guarantee it would be significant. Witness the fact that a man, woman, or child who straps explosives to their bodies and blows up a bus or marketplace is trying for limited physical damage to the surroundings, but much broader psychological effects.

Enough! Ponder that. Next, something near and dear to my heart: Finding an excellent vintage wine for under $25.00!

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