Cover Story

Vials of terror

Keeping track of the world's deadly diseases is fast becoming a matter of national security: Defense and medical experts fear that the victory over smallpox-one of the greatest medical achievements of the 20th century-is sowing seeds for its clandestine use in 21st-century germ warfare. And the Bush administration is signaling that it is prepared to stand alone, in the face of an international treaty, to protect U.S. interests

Issue: "Germ warfare and national security," June 2, 2001

One hundred years ago a smallpox epidemic swallowed whole towns in America. In Kansas, a doctor and his bride exchanged vows at a March 1901 wedding by megaphone, both being in quarantine with the deadly disease. Since that time smallpox has killed more than 300 million people-but now, a global vaccination program has successfully wiped it out.

Smallpox, viewed as eliminated, has fallen off medical radar screens. Health clinics no longer carry the vaccine. Immunizations in the United States ended 30 years ago, leaving the population at large unprotected should the disease ever strike again. Smallpox eradication is one of modern medicine's greatest success stories-but use of the virulent virus in germ warfare could represent one of terrorism's greatest horror stories.

Six weeks ago at a government lab in Great Britain, researchers revealed that a vial of another toxin-foot-and-mouth disease-was missing. That lab also holds secret caches of tuberculosis, anthrax, ebola, and smallpox, all raising the specter that a disease heist could unleash human tragedies far worse than the livestock deaths that have swept the United Kingdom.

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Debate over germ warfare will accelerate, too, because President George W. Bush is signaling that he may part ways with Britain and other allies on how best to manage specimens of viral vials. Mr. Bush is likely to reject the protocols, now more than six years in the making, for enforcing a 1972 germ-warfare treaty. A group of advisers is uneasy with inspection provisions that could give America's enemies access to private labs, without strong enough guarantees that the United States could keep an effective eye on activities of terrorist states. When the White House leaked that position to reporters last week, European allies accused the United States of reversing progress in the germ war.

Only a small handful of laboratories are known to possess smallpox virus specimens: a Russian state laboratory known as Vector, the British lab at Porton Down in Wiltshire, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. U.S. intelligence analysts believe other countries want to acquire it, or may already have secret stocks. These include China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Cuba, and Yugoslavia. It is no coincidence that most are already listed on the State Department's list of known sponsors of terrorism, and it is no secret that they want to build a biological weapons program. After the fall of the Soviet Union, then president Boris Yeltsin admitted that his country had a longstanding biological weapons program, including the manufacture of 20 tons of smallpox.

When unleashed, the potency of the smallpox virus makes it an instant and widespread killer. Airborne, the virus can easily infect other victims 30 feet away. It requires no special injection or equipment; a simple cough will do. A suicide germ-warfare terrorist could carry the disease onto a plane or into a sports arena and infect thousands within a day. "Biological weapons will strike us unaware. A terrorist only has to open a vial instead of setting off a loud bomb," said Robert Maginnis, vice president for policy at the Family Research Council.

"I think the likelihood of a biological weapon being used is a lot higher than a ballistic missile coming across the Pacific," said Tara O'Toole, deputy director of Johns Hopkins University's Center for Civilian Biodefense. "Yet we are spending an awful lot more on missiles than on bioweapons."

In presentations, Ms. O'Toole likes to hold up a photo of a uranium enrichment plant for comparison. When it was first built it had the largest roof structure in the world, she tells an audience of defense experts. To make one kilogram of plutonium, the plant must process 100 tons of uranium. By contrast, the world's deadliest bugs-smallpox, plague, anthrax, tularemia, botulin toxin, and ebola-are contained in vials each no larger than a thumb. They can be stored in liquid nitrogen or cryogenic freezers and grown in fermenters the size of a desktop copier.

"You can't see a fermenter, or anything that you would need to make a biological weapon, via satellites," Ms. O'Toole pointed out. "It is going to be hard to see a biological weapon, it is going to be hard to track it before it's used, and it is going to be very hard to interdict before it's released," Ms. O'Toole told a gathering of policymakers in Washington last year.

This may sound apocalyptic, but a wide range of medical experts and scientists take the threat seriously. Johns Hopkins, whose research teams pioneered the smallpox vaccine, hosts smallpox war games to test whether medical communities are prepared to deal with a sudden outbreak. In a simulated terrorist attack conducted in 1999, health workers could not halt the spread of the disease. More than 15,000 hypothetical cases developed within two months.


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