The Death Whisperer Series

The Death Whisperer Series
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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The FBI and bioterror

Yesterday, I read an article online that said the FBI had changed it's opinion of whether or not an individual could create a bioweapon. Previously they apparently were under the misconception that it would take sophistocated equipment and a team of people to create an agent. As a microbiologist, I could have told them that's very naive. The materials to grow and store bacterial organisms are easily available from commercial sources with no need for any clearances or licensures. Source organisms are available in the dirt in your garden. Things like Clostridium species which contain some very nasty toxins, i.e. botulism, can be found there. In the Great Plains states, the wild rabbits are endemically infected with Francisella tularemia, a select class organism. So getting the starting materials isn't hard.

I think the authorities tend to visualize bioterrorism in terms of massive attacks as in the case of the Soviet ICBM's loaded with weaponized bugs. But terrorism doesn't have to be perpetrated on a large scale to create panic. Only a handful of people actually contracted anthrax in the incidents following 911. Yet it created concern across the entire country and fed a new industry aimed at detecting minute quantities of potential bio-threats, particularly in aerosols such as those created by mail sorting machines. It seems industry is a bit more on the ball than the Homeland Security people, although, to be fair, a commercial opportunity will always cause entrepreneurs to flock to the money.

Personally, I worry about nutcakes fashioning bioweapons. Over the decades, it's happened before. I recall a couple of medical students years ago who were growing Corynybacterium diphtheria which they planned to put into the water supply. Thankfully, they were apprehended before anything could happen. ATCC, a repository for biological organisms, now has better control over whom they ship samples to, but it's not foolproof. And as I said, nature provides ample opportunity to find the starting material. What to do about it? Can't really say. But let's at least not be naive and think one needs a sophistocated lab set up and personnel.

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