Scientists urge U.S. to do more to detect, prevent use of bioweapons

Published 29 May 2014

Carefully targeted biological weapons could be as dangerous as nuclear weapons, so the United States should invest more resources in developing technologies to detect them. Milana Trounce, M.D, a clinical associate professor of emergency medicine at Stanford University, is presiding over a course titled Biosecurity and Bioterrorism Response to get students thinking about prevention methods and consequences in the event of a biological attack.

I’m hoping to continue to grow this forum to figure out real-world solutions,” she said.

According to Stanford School of Medicine, more national focus is needed on the risk of bioterrorism. Steven Block, Ph.D, professor of biological sciences and of applied physics at Stanford, meets with a scientific advisory group several times a year to report to the federal government on national security issues, including bioterrorism. “The advent of modern molecular genetic technologies is making it increasingly feasible to engineer bioweapons,” said Block. “It’s making people with even moderate skills able to create threats they couldn’t before.”

Some natural bioweapons, like the anthrax strain mailed to public officials in late 2001, are treatable, but the technology for making drug-resistant anthrax or other “designer diseases” is becoming increasing available, cheaper, and more sophisticated. “We are undergoing a biotechnology revolution,” Trounce said. “Even in the last ten years, science has advanced so much that you can engineer some of the scariest organisms — for example, smallpox.”

Worries about large-scale biowarfare have been part of national security thinking for a long time, evidenced, for example, in cold war-era experiments to develop deadly pathogens. Both the United States and the Soviet Union conducted deadly experiments, but the United States destroyed all its stockpiles of biological weapons following a 1972 international treaty banning such weapons.

“The United States abandoned offensive bioweapons research,” Trounce said. “Unfortunately, the Soviets did not.” According to Trounce, the Soviet Union continued its massive bioweapons efforts through the 1990s.

Trounce, who grew up in Ukraine before immigrating to the United States, returned to Russia in 2004 on a State Department trip to biological weapons facilities in Russia as part of a consortium of scientists and engineers. The State Department sought to redirect former Russian bioweapons scientists toward peaceful pursuits of their skills, for fear that not doing so would turn the scientists into bad actors seeking to construct bioweapons for the highest bidder. During the trip, Trounce witnessed lab operations that led her to believe that Soviet scientists kept producing bioweapons for twenty years after signing the treaty banning such weapons.

Claims that Soviet-era bioweapons programs have been eliminated should be met with skepticism, said Retired Rear Admiral Ken Bernard, M.D, a guest speaker for Trounce’s course. “The Soviets completely lied to us before. Throughout the 1980s, they were producing tons and tons of smallpox and anthrax, even as the U.S. stopped vaccinating for smallpox,” He said

The increasingly simple skills required to design a bioweapon and the difficulty in tracing who launched such a bioweapon have made bioterror a more attractive medium for terrorists than nuclear weapons. “It’s generally possible to know who was behind a nuclear attack, because you can trace material by its composition ‘signature,’” said Trounce. “Biological agents are ubiquitous. You could even obtain them within the target country. It may be impossible to figure out who the bad guy is. That’s ideal for terrorism.”

For this reason, the federal government has spent billions of dollars on measures to detect bioweapons. Bio-watch, a $50 to $75 million per year early-warning system, detects dangerous microorganisms by using sensors attached to existing environmental air-quality-sampling platforms in major cities. The system has suffered a few false alarms, and even if it does detect substances which may be used in an attack, it takes twenty-four hours for monitors to get results of the attacking agent. That may be too late, says David Relman, M.D, professor of microbiology and immunology and the co-director of Stanford’s Center for International Security Cooperation. “In a lot of cases, people benefit from antimicrobial drugs only if they start taking them within forty-eight hours — and they’ve got to be taking the right drug. That’s also the hardest time to get an accurate diagnosis, because the earliest phases of many of these diseases are often nonspecific.”

Trounce and fellow scientists want the federal government to invest more resources to prevent the use of bioweapons as it does to prevent the use of nuclear weapons. “A high-tech bioweapon could cost only $1 million to build,” Block said. “That’s thousands of times cheaper than going nuclear. Iran’s centrifuges alone cost them billions.”