The recent Ricin incident in Las Vegas in February of this year has once again brought new attention to the potential for a biological terrorism attack on US soil. However, given the fact that no actual incident of any magnitude has occurred nor has any plot been uncovered to produce a major event so far it leads one to wonder what is the real potential for a biological weapons attack. Movies like Outbreak have lead Americans to believe that some terrorist group can wipe out a whole city with a biological agent and send in the men in white space suits to rescue the few survivors. While the potential devastation (in human lives) from an attack with a biological agent like Ebola virus or anthrax bacillus is much greater again there is no evidence of any effort to undertake such an attack in this or any other country.
Those who would disagree with the above will undoubtedly call to mind the ricin mail letters that were sent or Washington and New York locations in the winter of 2004. While these letters made front page headlines for weeks the actual number of people that were adversely affected was small. Likewise, in the 2001 Anthrax letter mailing episode the total number of people effected was small. A list of actual ricin related attacks or events is provided in the Special Ricin Study performed by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (cited at end of article). This list shows that no large number of deaths or injuries resulted from any of these events. A suicide bomber with a vest full of explosives would have rained much more havoc in each of these cases.
The Point - The point to all this is that by the end of the 2008 fiscal year the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will have spent $50 billion on defense against bioterrorism attacks. Let's assume for the moment that the biological weapons threat is more fantasy then fact, how much law enforcement and emergency response equipment would State and local police department have bought with that amount of your tax payer dollars? Need updated cruisers, computers, commutations systems and centers, or weapons and ammo for use on your beat? Fifty billion will buy a bunch of that stuff.
With that amount of money we could probably have built that infamous "2000 mile Fence" across the US- Mexico border and saved the lives of tens of dozens of dedicated DEA and Border Patrol Agents who have been gunned down, slaughtered or run down by Hummers in the past few years. Of yeah, it might also have stemmed the flow of illegal drugs into out country and, of course, kept out who knows how many millions of illegal immigrants many of them bringing criminal activity to your neighborhoods.
What Did We Get for $50 Billion? - So what exactly have we gotten for all that money?
For one thing we have a series of National Centers for study of bioterrorism organisms established at major universities around the country. That sounds good on the surface until you realize that most of these were university research departments that were hurting for grant money and all of a sudden saw a way to keep their research going under the guise of "Bioterrorism prevention". Did I mention that all these groups have extensive ties to government agencies that provided these funds? This is not to mention that in a 2007 report by the Office of Public Health Preparedness it stated. "American laboratories handling the world's deadliest germs and toxins have experience more that 100 accidents and missing shipment (of germs) since 2003. They describe accidents involving anthrax... and plague-causing bacteria in 44 labs in 24 states". DHS and CDC have subsequently recommended that these labs tighten up on their security procedures.
And Even More – BioSensor is a well intended program to keep track throughout the country of unusual occurrences or medical reports of illnesses that might be from a biological agent. The aim is to give advanced warning to the medical and DHS community. After more than five years in place the program is nothing more than big computer game with little, if any real public health or safety value coming from it. At a cost of well over a billion dollars it has added generously to the coffers of companies and contracts who devised it but that's about it. In a May 2007 hearing to evaluate the effectiveness of the program Dr. Marci Layton, Assistant Commissioner of New York City Department of health said, "It's a question of whether you invest in the smoke alarm, or the firemen and the trucks to respond to the alarm." BioSensor is at best a smoke alarm whose battery doesn't work.
Then there is BioWatch a government program designed to put air sampling device in 500 routine locations in 31 cities initially and then expanding to more cities at an initial cost of hundreds of millions of dollars not to mention the cost to maintain and monitor these devices yearly. The problem is suppose that the bio-attack is thru the water supply or food chain? Oh, well we don't monitor those. Actually if I were a bioterrorist I would look up the list of cities where monitors are in place on the Governments website and then I'd go attack some city that did not have any monitors.
Why No Bio-Attack Yet? - The answer to this is probably very simple. It's too darn hard to make this stuff in large enough quantity to cause any significant event. Yes you could grow anthrax, Ebola or tularemia organisms in your kitchen or in an old abandoned bakery or brewery. I know I have even stated how easy (theoretically) it would be to do this in previous articles I have written. But there is this nagging safety issue. To grow up the gallons of infected cultures you would need and then too effectively put that material in a form so you could deliver to the population is too risky to the safety of the guys who would be trying to do it.
Terrorists whether from radical foreign religious groups or home grown Timothy McVeigh "wannabes" are not stupid; self preservation is an innate thing. Most terrorist at the top planning levels, at least, are well educated engineers or PhD scientists. They should be - most were probably educated right here in our finest universities.
Returning to the Point - My point in all of this diatribe is $50 billion would have bought law enforcement a lot of needed equipment and capabilities. Like so many government programs the biodefense program has been mismanaged and allowed to go in its own direction. The program provides hundreds of millions of dollars to supports research like developing a luminescent detector, expanding PCR methods to microchip detectors, or antibody coated magnetic micro beads that can be separated by magnets to identify potential biological agents. The problem with all of this is where do you put the detectors, how many, and at what cost. Again the smart terrorist will read up on these technologies on the internet or published literature and then know what to look for. An air sampling device is pretty easy to spot especially when it is in a stairwell at the airport.
All this research is nice and gives the researcher a lot of publications but for officers on the ground it is of little benefit. To Paraphrase Dr Layton's comments above, "It's a question of whether you invest in the smoke alarm, or the firemen (police) and the trucks (cruisers) to respond to the alarm." Think about that the next time you go to scene with some equipment that does not work right.