In a crowded store during the Christmas shopping rush, a man sneezes and does not cover his face. Early one morning, a sniffling woman wipes her nose with her fingers and then wipes it off on the subway pole she’s holding onto for support. A sweating, glassy eyed toddler is fussed over by its mother and several other travelers just outside the security gates at a large airport.
America is under attack by bioterrorists.
All of these scenarios and dozens more are evaluated every day by the men and women of numerous police departments, Homeland Security offices and the Public Health services nationwide. They all realize one important truth. We will not know we have been attacked until it is well underway.
Illnesses have two time frames to consider. The first is the incubation period. That is the time that passes before the patient becomes sick. The second item is the period of time that the patient is infectious.
A bioterrorist seeking to use human hosts to initiate the attack must use a disease that incubates long enough that the terrorist host can reach the target. The disease selected must also be infectious long enough to allow the terrorist to spread the illness before succumbing to it. An ideal disease has a long incubation period and is infectious before the host becomes ill.
Many of today’s terrorists are inspired by some religion, and draw their ideal vision of an attack from the sacred writing of that religion. An attack must appear like it was a plague from God, Allah or whichever deity the terrorist follows.
Along with that, the disease must terrify. The common cold would not be the terrorist’s choice. Everyone has had it. Everyone is annoyed by it but no one fear it. A bioterrorist weapon must terrify.
The media’s imagination has been captured by smallpox and by Ebola. Smallpox is deadly to some of its victims, but its appearance is what terrifies. Oozing pustules all over the body mark smallpox and the survivors are often horribly scarred for life.
Ebola is also terrifying. In the poverty stricken areas of the world where it appears naturally, the vast majority of its victims die. And, they die horribly, bleeding from every orifice including the eyes. That is an image to terrify the most hardened soul.
Terrorists learned a great deal from the anthrax letters. It became clear that a small threat could result in a great deal of panic. Government officials, the media and the public reacted in just the manner that a terrorist wants, fear, some panic, the spending of vast sums of money, disruption of media and government offices and operations for weeks and months. The lesson was that a small attack can achieve great things.
Most terrorists are not content with the small attack. A bioterrorist attack will attempt to spread a terrifying disease throughout our population in enough cases that the results of the anthrax letters will be multiplied a hundred times.
The easiest way for a bioterrorist to spread an infectious disease is through using living hosts. Since many terrorist organizations are devoted to suicide, that is not much of a hurdle. The hosts must be infected and in the United States before their disease begins to show.
The disease selected ought to be easily spread, and the symptoms of the common cold or the flu are an ideal way. Snot kills. Smallpox spreads via contact with the virus which can exist on surfaces for days. Ebola is spread by contact with the bodily fluids and is very fragile outside the human body.
Terrorists would concentrate on targets that have meaning to them, or to the United States. The Pentagon has both buses and a train station where its employees arrive daily. Public transportation is an ideal means of bringing thousands of people into contact with a disease at the same time.
A disease could also be spread by using non-human hosts. Rats could spread plague in New York City, as they have throughout history. Mosquitoes carrying a disease could be released into a shopping mall.
Spreading a disease without using a host is a difficult task. A dispersal method must be developed that is effective and not obviously a threat. A means of carrying the infectious disease must also be found that does not threaten the person carrying it and does not kill the disease en route. The technology exists but it is a far more daunting task for the potential bioterrorist. The method of transportation might fail. The means of dispersal might fail. The mechanisms involved might be detected by American security forces before they can be used.
The most likely scenario for a bioterrorist attack on the United States involves one or more infected terrorists doing their level best to be disgustingly unsanitary in a public area of their target. They may appear ill or they may not. They will be coughing, vomiting, sneezing and wiping snot on anything and anyone they can.
Tomorrow we will look at bio toxins.
Table of contents for Bioterrorism 2009
- Bioterrorism and Infectious Disease