Bioterrorism Mid-term Questions
1. What are the 4 criteria of a category A microbe as defined by the CDC?
CDC (2015) defines a bioterrorism attack as a deliberate release of bacteria, viruses, or other agents with the intention of causing illness or death in plants, animals or people. Biological agents are difficult to detect when used and can take up to many days before discovery. Bioterrorism agents are broadly classified into three categories based on a four-point criterion; their ability to be disseminated, the rates of mortality, the actions necessary for public health preparedness, and their ability to cause panic to the public (CDC, 2015). Based on this criterion, they are classified as Category A, B, and C. Based on this criterion, category A agents are considered to be the highest risk agents and are thus given the highest priority when it comes to directing the bio-defense research efforts.
First, they are easily disseminated meaning that they can be easily transmitted from one person to another. Transmission is mainly airborne. Due to their high rate of spreading, category A agents are capable of affecting a large number of people after their release. Second, these agents result in high mortality rates meaning that they can result in many fatalities. As such, they have a huge impact on a nation’s public health system. Third, category A agents usually cause panic among the public and subsequently lead to social disruption. Due to their high risk to the public, the public is often thrown into a panic once news of a category A bioterrorism attack occurs. This makes it even more difficult when trying to deal with or contain the attack. Finally, category A agents require special public health preparedness actions. Due to their ability to quickly spread and lethality, category A agents require special actions regarding preparedness to deal with the public panic and high mortality rates that characterize them. Examples of category A agents include anthrax, smallpox, botulism, tularaemia, plague, ebola, and lassa fever among others.
2. What is the difference between bio-offensive versus bio-defensive weapons programs?
With the increasing threat of biological warfare, nations developed their bio-offensive and bio-defensive programs. Ideally, bio-offensive weapons programs have the intention of developing biological weapons that can be used against enemies in case of war. On the other hand, bio-defensive weapons programs are more of an antidote to the bio-offensive weapon programs. Their intention is to protect or defend the people against possible biological weapons. While bio-offensive programs develop the biological agents capable of causing mass destruction, bio-defensive programs develop detection systems, vaccines, protection measures and treatments for possible biological weapon agents (Wampler, 2001). However, researchers have been unable to draw a clear line between the two programs. This is because bio-defensive research primarily involves the production and genetic alteration of a biological weapon agent. In this way, both defensive and offensive sound very similar. For example, an article I of the Biological Weapons Convention is rather vague since it does not state whether or not bio-defensive research is allowed.
Cases of bio-defense programs gone wrong have documented. For example, the accidental release of anthrax from a military facility in 1979 in Russia highlights the paradox that is bio-defense research. Therefore, according to Wampler (2001), the difference between bio-offensive research and bio-defensive research lies solely on the intent. However, a layman might find it a bit hard to tell the difference between research that is undertaken for defensive purposes and that undertaken for defensive purposes. At the same time, the intent is solely dependent on the researcher and. Therefore, he or she has to clearly demonstrate it. Some argue that defensive programs should only be restricted to programs such as immunization and safety measures and not the development of biological agent munitions which constitutes offensive program activities.
3. Give examples of how microbes have been used as weapons in history.
Since the dawns of civilization, poisoning has been a tool for assassinations. During the middle ages, infectious diseases were lethal weapons that wiped out entire armies. However, it was in the 20th century that sophisticated biological warfare programs started taking shape. During World War I, the German Army was accused of using glanders and anthrax with an attempt to infect animals in their enemy countries. By the start of the Second World War, may European nations had already put in place their biological weapon programs. During the war, the Japanese Army is said to have poisoned about a thousand water wells in Chinese villages. Also, Japanese war planes dumped fleas infested with plague over Chinese cities and in rice fields causing epidemics that lasted many years and killed about 30,000 people by 1947 (Riedel,2004).
According to Riedel (2004), the agents that the Japanese used were mainly vibrio cholera, shigella spp, neisseria meningitides and B. anthracis. Post-World War II saw the use of biological weapons for covert assassinations. George Markov, a Bulgarian exile was assassinated using a tiny pellet that was discharged into his leg while at a bus stop in London. In 2001, letters laced with anthrax were sent to federal officials in multiple locations. This led to the death of 5 people while 17 were injured, the majority of who were postal workers. In 1979, an accidental leak of anthrax from a Russian military facility caused the deaths of about 68 people. The use of biological weapons is not widespread because it is prohibited by some international treaties that govern biological and chemical weapons.
CDC. (2015) Bioterrorism Overview. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2015.
Riedel, S. (2004) Biological Warfare and Bioterrorism: A Historical View. Proceedngs, Baylor University Medical Center, 2004; 17(4):400-406.
Wampler, R.A. (2001) The Nixon Administration’s Decision To End U.S. Biological Warfare Programs. National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 58