TCS Daily

Bigger Worries Than BioChem

By Noah Shachtman - October 8, 2003 12:00 AM

Lost in the hullabaloo over David Kay's report on Iraq's unconventional arms are some pretty basic questions. Like, why all the hysteria about biological and chemical weapons in the first place? And why is America spending billions to defend against a large-scale biochem attack that'll almost certainly never come?
Maybe the hyperventilating news accounts are true, that Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups have tried to get their hands on such agents. But without the expertise and funding of a state sponsor like Iraq, it's almost impossible to pull off the strike of Biblical significance that the press has been wailing about for so long.
Heck, even with a state sponsor, it's extremely difficult. Lots and lots of money and expertise and needed. Environmental conditions have to be just right; a strong breeze or a light snow will neuter a big chunk of biological strikes.
So it's no surprise that, since 1900, there have been only 40 recorded bio-attacks. Compare that to conventional terrorist strikes, the ones using guns and bombs. There have been more than 650 of them worldwide -- just since the start of 2002, observes Gary Ackerman, with the
Center for Nonprofileration Studies, in a soon-to-be-published article. What's more, "there has never been a single bioterrorist incident with more than 15 fatalities -- an all-too-common occurrence when terrorists use conventional weapons," he writes.
Despite this, the Department of Homeland Security's
2004 budget, signed into law last Wednesday, allocates nearly $900 million for "Project BioShield," an effort to prep vaccines and treatments for biological and other threats; $88 million for the "National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center," to protect people and crops from germ attacks; $38 million for air filters to catch pathogens; $84 million for the public health system, to treat biological and chemical-attack victims; the list goes on, just about endlessly. And it doesn't even begin to touch the $1.2 billion the Pentagon wants to spend next year on chem-bio detection, the $1.6-or-so billion from the National Institutes of Health, or the $600 million that President Bush wants to spend to keep looking for Saddam's unconventional stash.
All this for a threat that many researchers say is more psychological than real. Yes, a large-scale chemical or biological attack could, maybe, kill a few hundred -- or even a few thousand, if everything went absolutely, perfectly, 100% according to nefarious plan. But so can a few box cutters in the hands of the right people, we've learned. And so could a bunch of shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missiles, like the kind used in Kenya against an Israeli airliner last year. Yet research to defend commercial jets against such threats gets $60 million in next year's Homeland Security budget -- a fraction of the bio-defense funds.
On the other hand, the number of dead from the most likely bio- or chem-terrorist attacks couldn't fill the business class section of a good-sized airplane. They're designed to sow fear, not take lives, Ackerman says. A dozen people died in 1995's Tokyo subway gassing -- but more than 4,400 went to hospitals with psychosomatic trauma. The anthrax letters killed five people, and paralyzed Washington for days.
Then there's the Rajneeshe cult "attack," if you can call it that. In 1984, the group contaminated salad bars in Oregon with salmonella. 751 people got sick. Nobody died. In fact, nobody even knew the outbreak was intentional until a year later, when the cult leader confessed.
Compare that to a real biological killer, like tuberculosis. It ends the life of more than 2 million people every year. But the federal government is "luring researchers away" from scientific research into TB and other infections of mass destruction, notes Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, with the
Federation of American Scientists.
UCLA's Dr. Marcus Howritz was "on the cusp of real progress" in developing a better TB vaccine, Merrill Goozner
reports in this month's American Prospect. Now he's been diverted into working on a barely-lethal biological agent.
Nancy Connell, who heads a Pentagon-funded bio-defense lab in Newark, NJ, doesn't think a biological strike is all that likely. But she takes grants to study smallpox and anthrax, because she can use the same research funds to work on flu and TB, which "
actually do kill people," she notes.
It's a good thing Connell's work has two uses. Because worrying about smallpox these days seems particularly paranoid. There's basically none of the virus left on earth, after all. While there's some fear that other countries may have gotten their hands on the stuff, only two facilities -- in Atlanta and in Koltsovo, Russia -- have smallpox, officially. Despite this, the government will spend up to a billion dollars handing out smallpox vaccinations.
In contrast, radioactive isotopes like cesium-137 can be found just about anywhere -- nuclear plants, hospital cancer wards, food sterilization plants. And cesium, combined with conventional explosives, creates a "dirty," or radiological bomb. Like chemical or biological weapons, the effect of these weapons is largely psychological, most analysts say. But unlike a mustard gas spray or an anthrax plume, which can be blown from a city street by a heavy wind, cesium binds easily with concrete. It could contaminate a city for decades to come.
Meanwhile, the Homeland Security Department's budget for curbing the traffic of such isotopes is peanuts compared to the biochem billions: $127 million for radiation detectors, plus $67 million to look for isotopes being sent through the mail or through the port system.
Now, does this mean America should just give up defending itself against the threat of biological and chemical weapons? Of course not. But let's spend wisely. And let's go where the action is.
Russia has nearly 40,000 tons of chemical agent, according to Joseph Cirincione, with
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Much of it is guarded only lightly. So rather than pay and pay for sensors which will probably never be called into service (and probably wouldn't work in any case, many scientists say), let's spend the money to help Russia eliminate its unconventional stockpile.
And while we're at it, maybe we could do the same. The Pentagon
just announced that it won't be rid of its 30,000 ton cache of chemical arms in 2012, at the earliest. So much for hunting for WMD.


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