The most deadly and menacing attack using a weapon of mass destruction will not begin with a mushroom cloud overhead, horrific, yet instantly identifiable, as a nuclear strike. Nor will it begin with a panic in a subway below city streets, with people choking on a chemical that is unseen, yet unmistakably poisonous peril.
The most deadly and menacing attack will begin with nothing visible or detectable to indicate there has even been an attack. And for days, it will spread through a population — unnoticed, undetected, undiagnosed, even when it first appears as an apparently isolated case of a rare illness. Then, there will be a second, maybe nearby, maybe not, — a sickness that may or may not be recognized as similar; and then, there will be several others, still seemingly unconnected occurrences.
Crucial days will pass before authorities eventually detect that the nation has been attacked — massively and expertly — by biological weapons of mass destruction, wielded by terrorists who are now nowhere to be found. By then, the nation will be struggling to limit the spread of death. Struggling against time and nature to quarantine a germ that has had a perilous head-start., struggling to find and distribute the proper vaccine and medicines. Experts may discover that the nation has been attacked by a new, genetically engineered, weaponized germ. Perhaps, a weaponized germ for which there is no known cure.
This is, of course, is a worst-case scenario. For 100 years after H. G. Wells' 1899 classic "War of the Worlds," this was the stuff of frightening fiction. Ever since September 11, we have known that we are living in a world that is at war with itself. We must do all we can to assure that today's worst case scenario does not become tomorrow's news.
In researching a recent book and television documentary series ("Avoiding Armageddon: Our Future. Our Choice"), I was determined to present more than a handwringing investigation of the threats we face and spotlight bold solutions. There were indeed bold responses to nuclear terror — safeguard America's national security by securing Russia's under-secured nuclear arsenals and materials before terrorists get them. So, too, with the vast chemical arsenals in Russia and elsewhere.
But, for the threat of bioterrorism, solutions proved more limited than most experts like to say. International treaties do not outlaw the possession of pathogens, which are vital for research and vaccines; they outlaw possession of pathogens for the wrong purposes — for making war, not medicine.
"With modern biotechnology, it's no longer necessary for there to be large stocks of these materials," according to Alan Zelicoff, a syndromic surveillance expert at the Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, N.M. "Rather, they can be brewed up in a matter of days to weeks, in sort of a just-in-time philosophy. So, there's nothing to detect except intent, and intent is a very, very hard thing to measure."
So, it is that most of our programs are understandably focused on what can be done post-attack. Valuable efforts are underway to improve our ability to recognize and treat attacks using germs as weapons — anthrax, smallpox, and so on. There are new computer coordination efforts linking the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with hospitals throughout the nation to greatly reduce the time it takes to detect that we have been attacked. (The swift detection of the recent non-terrorism outbreak of monkeypox — and the link to prairie dogs kept as pets — was impressive.) There are efforts to make vaccines available. New sensors can now detect biological and chemical perils in subways, public buildings and city streets.
Most recently, scientists at the Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville announced that they had cracked the genetic code for the anthrax bacterium, a major step in future treatment efforts. But the science that produces a new generation of cures and preventatives can also be used by those with hateful motives to produce a new generation of weapons that cannot be defensed — germs that cannot be defeated. Genetic engineering could someday be used to combine the properties of the world's most communicable germs (such as smallpox) and the most deadly germs (such as Ebola virus).
The result: The world may be on the verge of seeing a new weapon unleashed, one that can be easily launched by anyone suicidal enough to want to wreak havoc without concern for their own well-being. And one that cannot be feasibly defeated with the technology we have today.
The best news out of all of this may be the fact that the same properties that make weaponized germs so perilous also make it exceedingly difficult for terrorists to use — without contaminating themselves or their own people. Bioterror cannot be used in a region where enemies live side-by-side, such as the Middle East, for example, because germs targeted at an enemy are sure to spread and infect a perpetrator's own people.
But in today's new, real world, we know that terrorists are willing to kill themselves by flying jet planes into buildings to kill thousands of innocent people they never met. So, it is not unreasonable to expect that terrorists might also willingly infect themselves just to spread death by germs through a population that is an ocean away from their own homeland. Which is why bioterror may be the most menacing threat we face today.
Martin Schram, a columnist with Scripps Howard News Service, is the author of "Avoiding Armageddon," a new book about weapons of mass destruction and terrorism.