Our Best Defense May be Incompetence

Once upon a time, small tubes crossed oceans, borders, and customs floors in the pockets, briefcases, and luggage of respected and well intentioned scientists.

What was in these tubes? Whatever dangerous viruses or bacteria the scientists were interested in studying. Worse, at times the tubes contained tissues or blood from animals or humans who died of unknown diseases.

With time came “genetic engineering” and alarms rang out to control the shipping of dangerous organisms and rules were established for legitimate business and scientists to follow. Permits had to be obtained and containers were designed to ensure that we could properly move ‘bugs’ without risk to the environment or the person sitting next to you on that transatlantic flight.

Then news that Iraq had obtained samples of bacterial through these “legitimate” channels, by “mail order” from the ATCC (American Type Culture Collection) and the process and procedures became tighter still. Finally, with the “anthrax letters” we now have a very sophisticated system to monitor and control the legitimate activities around moving microbes.

But, what has been lost is that none of the rules, processes, or even customs inspections will stop that one envelope or vial in the pocket or briefcase of one terrorist who is intent in getting an effective biological weapon across any border, past any customs officer. And just as we cannot predict the face of the next terrorist who will strike, we will not find the virus or bacterial we are struck with until the epidemic has started.

We can, and do, have technology out there, sniffing the air around some of our cities. But the attack will already be in progress by then. At that time we will have to rely on a government that brought us Katrina mis-relief to find a way to quarantine and care for those downwind of the attack.

We know of a few 9/11-associated terrorists who bungled their mission and, thankfully, never caused harm. The bugs we face as potential biological weapons are never going to reveal themselves the way plutonium would. Therefore, to be truly safe from biological weapons attacks, for the foreseeable future, we will have to rely on a similar level of continued incompetence in the ranks of potential BW terrorists as our best defense.

Not much separates legitimate infectious disease and microbiology research from illegal & dangerous biological weapons development.

There are at least five (5) things that help weapons inspectors determine that someone has crossed the line into “black biology”:

1. Secrecy: If you’re doing legitimate research, it should be in the open, published, and open for review. If everything is in secret, you’ve crossed the line.

2. Size: If you need to study how a germ casuses disease you need to keep lethal forms of that germ in your laboratory. However, you don’t need massive quantities. If you are “stockpiling” large quantities, you ‘ve crossed the line.

3. Potency: To understand how these lethal forms of germs cause disease and to find ways to treat and prevent those diseases you must test them in animals. However, you don’t need to be working on ways to improve the lethality of those bugs. If you are, you’ve crossed the line.

4. Aerosol studies: This one is very tricky. If you are trying to defend against a BW attack then you need to be sure your vaccine or drug will work against the disease that is seen after an aerosol exposure (the most common way to attack with BW agent). So, you will need to do aerosol studies on a small scale. BUT, if you are working on ways to spread your germs the way we spread pesticides, you’ve crossed the line.

5. INTENT: This is the most significant and hardest to get at. What is in your mind, what are you trying to accomplish? If you can’t defend your actions under logical and legitimate goals that the scientific and government communities agree are important, you’ve crossed the line.