Terrorism is defined as the use of force or violence against people and property. That action is labeled BIOTERRORISM when the violence involves the intentional release of biological agents (such as, bacteria, viruses or toxins).
Bacteria and viruses are microorganisms that live among us both in harmony and with malice. When these microorganisms cause severe illness or death, they make excellent terrorism tools; and they’re classified as “biological” whether they occur naturally or are modified by humans in a lab.
Toxins are poisonous byproducts produced by such microorganisms and are as deadly as the organisms themselves. That means the “bug” can be killed but the toxin can linger behind and create substantial havoc on its own, such as contaminated food harboring the botulism toxin.
So we have biological agents (bacteria, viruses or toxins) that can be used as weapons of mass destruction by simply spreading them in the air, our water supply or along the food chain. They can kill instantly upon contact or not cause death for several hours or days, making it difficult to detect the source. And identification of the source can be even more complicated when agents spread from person to person (a contagious biological agent).
Further hurdles to effective protection occur when we realize how easy these agents are to use. They’re relatively inexpensive to obtain (as opposed to a nuclear weapon), are highly portable, can be disseminated easily among the population and has the potential to cause widespread fear and panic.
With all the possible types of biologicals and the ways in which they can be spread, it would seem to be a monumental task to plan anything of appreciable value to prevent such an attack. And that’s the central focus of bio-defense, the medical measures identified to protect people against biological agents.
In recent blockbuster films that have focused on bioterrorism, vaccines against the deadly contagion are developed within a few months, but that bears no resemblance to reality. The United States government has been working on effective anti-terrorism agents for years with little success.
The Transformational Medical Technologies initiative started by the Department of Defense in 2006 set out to identify the genomes of potential bioterrorism agents and develop broad-spectrum therapies effective against multiple bacterial and viral pathogens to protect soldiers against biological attacks. In reality, the program produced no new antibiotics for specific treatments or antidotes to date and the program has ceased to exist as envisioned.
Now the U.S. government is focusing its attention on what’s called “The Big Six Biological Threats”. These are identified as anthrax, plague, tularemia, botulism toxin, smallpox and viral hemorrhagic fevers (like the Ebola virus). And these threats can be grouped so that a common treatment can be developed for certain biological threats.
Anthrax, plague and tularemia are all bacterial agents and the fluoroquinolone (like ciprofloxacin and levofloxacin) antibiotic drugs are effective treatments as well as some tetracycline-class drugs. There is even a tularemia vaccine in development.
Toxins, including botulism, often present as neurotoxins (causing nerve paralysis and respiratory failure) and the lack of any approved drug treatment other than supportive measures leaves a major gap in bio-defense. That’s a considerable area of exposure since the botulism neurotoxin is said to be the most poisonous substance known to man and is 10,000 times more deadly than cyanide poisoning.
Effective treatments for viral biological agents have also remained elusive. We have a smallpox vaccine for prevention and scientists are working on an Ebola vaccine, but we still have no cure for the common cold much less for these more virulent agents. There’s no specific treatment once these viruses cause sickness for those not already vaccinated. Recommended treatments are only supportive, like fluids, antibiotics for secondary infections, etc. – the same as for the common cold.
So our government has been rethinking its approach to bio-defense and focusing instead on stockpiling currently available antibiotics and antiviral agents without creating shortages for the rest of the population. In essence, we are back to square one regarding treatment protection against biologicals. Fortunately, increased and more effective intelligence of potential terrorist plots have been successful in keeping us safe to this point.
That safety net is a fragile element in our protection and provides fertile opportunity to create interesting terror plots in our writing to launch our protagonists into superhero action.
Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!