Anthrax, Smallpox, Plague: Reborn as Bioweapons?

By Barry James
International Herald Tribune
October 12, 2001

The threat of anthrax, an ancient scourge described in the Bible, again hangs over mankind. And one of history's great medical advances—the defeat of smallpox—could be undone if the worst of the dark fears stirred up by the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington come to pass.

Also lurking in the background is another of the human race's great enemies: bubonic plague. It was probably the Black Death that killed a third of Europe's population in the Middle Ages.

Anthrax, smallpox, and plague are three of the biological agents that experts fear most, should terrorists seek to carry out an even deadlier attack, because these diseases can be spread so quickly through a population.

While there are significant practical difficulties in mounting an attack using any of them, terrorists may already have the capability to do so. The CIA warned earlier this year that terrorist groups were actively searching the Internet for information on biological weapons, as well as chemical and nuclear ones. And the terrorist suspect Osama bin Laden said in 1998 that it was a "religious duty" to acquire unconventional weapons.

"I'm not trying to be alarmist," said Andrew Card, the White House chief of staff, "but we know these terrorist organizations have probably found the means to use biological and chemical weapons."

Little Protection

The United States and some other governments have intensified programs for reacting to a biological weapons attack. But the sad truth for people feeling newly threatened is that preparation is not much use.

Although there has been a panic rush on masks and antibiotics in the United States, "there is presently little that individuals can do in advance to protect themselves from a bioterrorist attack," according to the U.S. Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies.

Fear of biological terrorism has jumped with the discovery of anthrax spores in the co-worker of a man who died of the disease in South Florida last week. Concern also rose with the revelation that one of the suspects in the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon had asked earlier in Florida about renting a crop duster plane.

Some experts say a possible method of causing an epidemic of pulmonary anthrax, which is almost universally fatal, would be to launch disease-causing spores into the air upwind of a population center.

Before Sept. 11, the sheer revulsion against biological weapons was widely seen as the best guarantee that they would not be used. After all, the theory went, terrorists wanted people alive and watching, not dead.

But Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism researcher at St. Andrews University in Scotland, has described the new generation of terrorists as "a nihilistic, apocalyptic, angry bunch," more willing than in the past to sacrifice themselves to achieve mass slaughter.

Continued on Next Page >>



NEWS FEEDS     After installing a news reader, click on this icon to download National Geographic News's XML/RSS feed.   After installing a news reader, click on this icon to download National Geographic News's XML/RSS feed.

Get our news delivered directly to your desktop—free.
How to Use XML or RSS

National Geographic Daily News To-Go

Listen to your favorite National Geographic news daily, anytime, anywhere from your mobile phone. No wires or syncing. Download Stitcher free today.
Click here to get 12 months of National Geographic Magazine for $15.