Questions and Answers

Bioterrorism Facts: Q&A
by Wes Thomas -

July 26, 1997

How real is domestic bioterrorism?

"This scenario of a nuclear, biological or chemical weapon in the hands of a terrorist cell or rogue nation is not only plausible, it’s really quite real." - Defense Secretary William Cohen [1]

"Approximately 17 countries (including five implicated as sponsors of international terrorism) may have active research and development programs for biologic weapons." [3]

"FBI Director Louis Freeh...said several Middle East terrorist organizations have U.S cells, ’which could be used to support terrorist activity here.’" [1]

"Federal officials estimate that a small plane properly equipped could disperse enough anthrax to kill millions of people in a large metropolitan area. The invisible, odorless agent would not likely be detected until people began dying, hours later. By then, it would probably be too late to save those people infected but still living." [1]

"’Biological terrorism provides paramilitary groups and terrorists a means to make their point and do it very dramatically,’ [Army Brig. Gen. John] Doesberg says." [1]

"Recent incidents have infused the issue with a sense of urgency. They include the sarin subway attack in Tokyo, Iraq’s development of biological weapons discovered following the Persian Gulf War, and other less publicized incidents of rogue chemists tied to right-wing paramilitary groups obtaining biological agents." [1]

"While Iraq did in fact have a biological capability -- they have produced anthrax and botulinim (10,000 times more potent than sarin) and were capable of disseminating them from the air -- weather and battlefield conditions (the coalition forces maintained control of the air) rendered the weapons militarily ineffective. ’If everything had worked out just right for [the Iraqis] they could have created mass casualities.’" [1]

"The Russians have just enormous capability...In 1979 U.S. intelligence officials grew suspicious of Soviet intentions when dozens perhaps hundreds of people mysteriously died in Sverdlovsk...Their fears were confirmed in 1992, when Russian President Boris Yeltsin acknowledged the Soviets had continued their [biological weapons] program on a large scale... The deaths were in fact caused by the inadvertent release of anthrax...the wind carried the anthrax spores 40 kilometers, killing dozens of people and livestock..."’While the break up of the Soviet Union eased the threat of conventional warfare, it has only exacerbated the threat of biological terrrorism,’ Franz says. ’We’re concerned about what happened to all those scientists. They had enormous facilities and thousands of people working on these issues. And they’re broke now.’ ... There is a fear that some of these scientists may sell their skills and expertise to rogue nations and sponsors of terrorism." [1]

According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study, "The economic impact of a bioterrorist attack can range ... to $26.2 billion per 100,000 persons exposed (anthrax scenario). [Cost = (number of deaths x present value of expected future earnings) + (number of days of hospitalization x cost of hospitalization) + (number of outpatient visits x cost of outpatient visits)].... [The attack] would cause high rates of illness and death. In the absence of an intervention program for the 100,000 persons exposed, the B. anthracis cloud would result in 50,000 cases of inhalation anthrax, with 32,875 deaths....A prophylaxis program must be instituted within 72 hours of exposure to prevent the maximum number of deaths.... In our analyses we did not include a number of other factors [long-term human illness, animal illnesses, decontamination and disposal of biohazardous waste, disruptions in commerce (local, national, and international), postattack prophylaxis distribution costs, including crowd control and security, adverse drug reactions, training, and procurement and storage of drugs and vaccines before attack...and include several assumptions: First, stockpiles of drugs, vaccines, and other medical supplies would be available and could be rapidly moved to points of need. Second, civil, military, and other organizations would be in place and have the capability to rapidly identify the agent, dispense drugs, treat patients, and keep order with the population. Finally ongoing intelligence gathering would detect possible bioterrorist threats." [2]

Comment: this CDC scenario with its simplistic cost model and completely unrealistic assumptions is a naive and misleading academic exercise. Military and civil organizations do not currently have these capabilities and intelligence gathering has proven to be incompetent (witness the federal government’s admission that it had no prior knowledge of Aum Shinrikyo [4]). It fails to address the limitations of hospital facilities and drug supplies in multi-city and >100,000 exposure scenarios, the low probability of detecting an attack until it’s too late to treat (after symptoms start), the breakdown of services and the huge losses from a simultaneous attack on electrical power and other infrastructure elements, the massive and catastrophic national and international economic damage resulting from an attack on cities with critical assets such as the New York Stock Exchange, the current total lack of trained and equipped emergency personnel, and the astronomical costs of abandoning anthrax-contaminated cities forever. Extrapolating linearly (a highly conservative assumption because it ignores the total breakdown of emergency services and the resulting megadeaths) and assuming 2 million persons exposed in the 27 largest cities would yield total U.S. losses of over $14 trillion dollars, plus tens of trillions more resulting from the loss of these cities and their businesses, and the local, national and international financial and utilities infrastructure and resulting global impacts. Most importantly, it ignores the value of human life itself. It’s obvious that CDC is in massive denial, along with the rest of the country. - WT

What is the government doing about it?

"Under the [$42.6 million] Domestic Preparedness Program, the Defense Department will take the lead in evaluating and training officials [and emergency personnel] in the 120 largest U.S. cities, beginning with 27 cities this year." The 27 cities are: "Anchorage, Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Honolulu, Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Memphis, Miami, Milwaukee, New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Antonio, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, Washington." [1]

Comment: these are not cities targeted for terrorist attack, as previously misstated, but designated by DoD for training. - WT

"The FBI has tripled the bureau’s counterterrorism force of the last three years, raising to 2000 the number of FBI personnel dedicated to the effort." [1]

"The Pentagon is establishing a Chem-Bio Quick Response Force, which includes CBIRF [Marine Corps Chemical/Biological Incident Response Force], several Army research and tactical units, and the military’s chemical depots."

"The...Pentagon...planners recommended $1 billion in new funding for defense against chemical and biological weapons." [1]


1. Peters K. Deadly Strike: The Pentagon takes aim against chemical and biological terrorism. Government Executive, July 1997

2. Kaufmann, A et al., "The Economic Impact of a Bioterrorist Attack, Emerging Infectious Diseases. Vol. 3, No. 2, April-June 1997

3.Cole LA. The specter of biological weapons. Scientific American 1996;275:60-5

4. H. Allen Holmes, Assistant Secretary of Defense; Phillip Wilcox, Counterterrorism Coordinator, State Dept. in congressional hearing, "Federal Response to Domestic Terrorism," House National Security Subcommittee, Nov. 1995

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