Archive for the ‘biological warfare’ Category

Biological Warfare and Bioterrorism: anthrax accident and attack

Tuesday, July 10th, 2012

This is a safe way to see anthrax bacteria

In 1969 President Nixon, prodded repeated by the Harvard biologist Matthew Meselson, decided to end all United States offensive biological warfare (BW) research. The story is told in detail in Volume III of the National Security Archive; the concept eventually led to the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, signed by more than one hundred nations.

Our BW research scientists were very unhappy with the decision and thought some countries, especially the Soviet Union, would not adhere to the treaty at all; they were eventually proven to be right. Our CIA apparently kept a "small" amount of various infectious agents and toxins including 100 grams of anthrax.

In April 1979 the most lethal anthrax epidemic to date began to unfold near the Denver-sized city of Sverdlovsk in Russia. The winds were blowing in a fortunate direction, so only 68 people died; otherwise the casualties would have likely numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Russia said nothing about the incident.

In late 1979 and early 1980 a Russian-language newspaper published in West Germany reported an explosion at a military installation near Sverdlovsk and estimated  a thousand resultant deaths from anthrax. Our April, 1979, satellite images were reviewed and roadblocks and decontamination trucks were noted in that area in the spring of 1979.

The Russians, in a March 1980 article, denied this was anything other than a naturally occurring outbreak. Later they claimed any deaths resulted from consumption of meat from anthrax-contaminated cattle and that veterinarians had reported deaths in animals before any human casualties. Dr Meselson arranged a 1988 meeting with Soviet scientists and was convinced that the tainted-meat explanation was plausible.

Finally in 1991, after the Soviet Union broke up and Boris Yeltsin headed Russia, he told President Bush that the KGB and Soviet military had lied. Apparently a technician at the BW plant had neglected to place a filter correctly; the result was a plume of anthrax spores. The Russians shut down the Sverdlovsk plant, only to build a larger one in Kazakastan.

October, 2001, brought an anthrax attack to the United States. A sixty-three-year-old man living in Florida was taken to his local emergency department, confused, vomiting and  having an elevated temperature. An alert infectious disease consultant considered the possibility of anthrax after a spinal tap revealed both white cells and the typical bacilli. A prompt response and rapid escalation of information ensued and the bacterium was found in the patient's workplace. Subsequently a history of the victim having examined a powder-containing letter was obtained from his co-workers. Other letters arrived at political and media targets in four states and Washington, DC.

Fast forward to 2010. The FBI finished its eight-year investigation, saying a US biologist who committed suicide in 2008 had been solely responsible for the 2001 bioterroism attack. The man implicated had worked at the Army laboratory at Fort Detrick and the Justice Department concluded he alone mailed the anthrax letters which killed five people, sickened seventeen others and led to a multi-billion-dollar, terror-laced response.

An October, 2011, article in USA Today said each FBI field office now has personnel dedicated to investigate biological attacks, while the bureau itself has an entire major section for counterterrorism: biological, chemical or radiological.

Most mail is absolutely safe

The same infectious disease expert involved in the uncovering of the 2001 letter attacks wrote a followup article published in January 2012 in the Annals of Internal Medicine. He mentioned the initial victim, a photo editor for a supermarket tabloid newspaper, was the 19th known case of inhalational anthrax in the US since 1900 and the first since 1976. Each of the other patients' exposure was directly associated with their work in mills or labs.

One other piece of irony was a Canadian study of anthrax published in September 2001 showing even unopened envelopes containing anthrax spores were a threat. The results had been emailed to our CDC on October 4, 2001, but the message was never opened.


Biological warfare and Bioterrorism part two: anthrax

Friday, July 6th, 2012

Don't ever open one of these sacks, unless it's your job and you're in full protective gear

I'm reading a book called Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War. It was written in 2001 by three Pulitzer-prize-winning senior newspaper reporters and starts with an event most of us never heard about; immediately after the horrific 9-11 attack: a trained New York National Guard team was sent to NYC to determine if there had also been an accompanying germ warfare attack.

There's a difference between biological warfare and bioterrorism; in one sense it's a matter of scale. In another it's a matter of purpose. In biological warfare the intent is to kill or incapacitate an enemy force. Actually, utilizing the latter approach is likely to be more effective, as it ties up large numbers of support personnel, moving the sick and taking care of them in medical facilities.

Bioterrorism attacks may injure or kill a much smaller absolute number of victims, but, as the term suggests, can spread terror through a huge population base.

So why concentrate on anthrax?

Sheep can get anthrax

Anthrax has a long history in North America, likely arriving thousands of years ago via the Bering Land Bridge. It's been a rare cause of death in the US: most cases here involved mill employees working with wool, farmhands, those who work in tanneries and, potentially, veterinarians. Anthrax was known as a disease of hoofed animals and people caught it from infected beasts. The usual form was cutaneous with a sore like a bug bite that could eventually turn into a black, usually painless skin ulcer. If unrecognized and untreated, the bacteria could spread to the blood (sepsis) with a 20% chance of death; less than 1% died if treated.

Most sources say anthrax spread from person to person never occurs; a few mention rare transmission of the cutaneous form.

But there are two other forms of the disease: the gastrointestinal kind occurs when a person consumes meat from an infected animal. It's been quite rare in the US with one case in 1942 and a second in 2010, but is also quite deadly with a death rate estimated variously at 25 to 60% worldwide and the effects of post-exposure treatment unclear.

And then there is inhalational anthrax, caused when someone breathes in anthrax spores, the dormant phase that can live in soil for many years. When this form occurs, the death rate, which used to be over 90%, even with early recognition and the best possible care, is now estimated at 45%.

The last case of inhalational anthrax occurring naturally in the US was in 1976.

So why did our military gear up to immunize 2.4 million soldiers and reservists in December 1997? After all, President Nixon, in November, 1969, had announced that our country  would totally abandon the use of lethal biological weapons and confine its research in the area to defensive measures. In 1972 the US, the Soviet Union and over a hundred other countries signed the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, banning the use of BW.

But many of our own scientists thought this was a mistake. They were proven correct when the anthrax epidemic at Sverdlovsk occurred only seven years later.

The military anthrax vaccination program has a fairly simplistic website, designed to walk young troops through carefully selected and presented facts about the anthrax vaccine. The vaccine has been available since the 1940s and 1950s and was tested in mill workers in the late 1950s. The modern version was licensed in the United States in 1970, and in January, 2002, the FDA allowed the company making it to begin routine distribution from a newer manufacturing plant. The same company is working on a new recombinant version

An October, 2011, Washington Post article discusses the thorny issue of testing the effectiveness of the immunization in children.

Even the safest vaccines have some side effects; the vaccine may not protect versus inhalational anthrax caused by  altered strains of the bacterium and there's no generalized threat at present.

But, what if?


Biological Warfare and Bioterrorism: part 1 History

Thursday, July 5th, 2012

This modern archer's arrow tips aren't as deadly

I wanted to write a post about the 1979 and 2001 anthrax attacks, but, as usual, decided that I should read about and write about the the background concepts first. I found a paper titled, "A History of Biological Warfare from 300 B.C.E. to the Present" written by an associate professor of respiratory care at Long Island University and decided I'd start there.

Our earliest reference to biological warfare concerns the Scythians, a tribe of nomads who migrated from Central Asia to Southern Russia in the 8th and 7th century BCE, founding an empire that lasted several centuries. Their prowess in war and their horsemanship were admired, but their archers were also a formidable force, using arrows dipped in the decomposed bodies of venomous snakes as well as in a mixture of decayed human blood and feces. This concoction would have had both snake venom and several deadly forms of bacteria.

A later episode of bio-warfare came in the 14th century when the Mongol army besieged the Crimean city of Caffa. The Tarters hurled cadavers into Caffa, having suffered from an epidemic of plague themselves. In doing so they not only got rid of their dead, but transmitted the disease to the inhabitants of Caffa. A memoir by the Genoese writer Gabriele de' Mussi which covers the war has been reviewed by Mark Wheelis, an emeritus professor of microbiology at UC Davis. He concludes that the Black Plague pandemic of that time period likely spread from the Crimea to Europe. It's still questionable if the Genoese traders in the city were the ones who brought the plague back.

Hannibal is famous for his use of elephants in the war between Carthage and Rome. He also used poisonous snakes, concealed in earthen jars and hurled onto opposing ships during a naval battle in 184 BCE against the leader of Pergomon.

Smallpox was used as a weapon in the French and Indian Wars (1754-1767). The outbreak of the disease at Fort Pitt led to a plan conceived by Colonel Henry Bouquet and General Jeffery Amherst. The British gave their enemies blankets and a handkerchief, all contaminated with pus from the sores of infected British troops, at a peace conference. Many other Indian tribes caught smallpox eventually, but this episode was a deliberate attempt to use the virus to gain advantage in a wartime situation.

And this prison is safer than Unit 731

In World War II, the Japanese Army established the infamous Unit 731. The country had refused to sign the 1925 Geneva Convention ban on biological weapons and in 1932, after Japan invaded Manchuria, an army officer and physician named Shiro Ishii was put in charge of the "Anti-epidemic Water Supply and Purification Bureau." a euphemism for a prison camp for bio-warfare research.

He and his staff spent years experimenting with many the world's most deadly diseases, using Chinese prisoners as guinea pigs for cholera, plague and dysentery. Over 10,000 of the victims died. Field trials included spraying bacterial cultures from airplanes over eleven Chinese cities.

Ishii was eventually replaced as head of the unit by Kitano Misaji, who later became Lieutenant Surgeon General; after the war the United States granted both immunity from war crimes prosecution in exchange for their bio-warfare knowledge. Ishii had faked his own death and gone into hiding, but was captured and interrogated. Neither man's information proved to be of much value in the long run. Ironically Misaji  later worked for the Japanese pharmaceutical company Green Cross, becoming the chief director of the company in 1959.

I've skipped many vignettes, but it's time to get to the modern era, returning to anthrax as a major subject to discuss.