• BioterrorismWhat Can We Glean from a Bean: Ricin’s Appeal to Domestic Terrorists

    By Stevie Kiesel

    Just as policymakers have been slow to acknowledge and act upon the threat of domestic CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear) terrorism, timely research on the issue is scarce as well. Ricin is one of the more dangerous agents of domestic terror. As government agencies acknowledge the threat domestic terrorism poses, policymakers and law enforcement should take ricin seriously as a potential weapon.

  • PerspectiveBioweapon Threat Didn’t End in Cold War, Experts Warn House

    Picking apart flaws in the government’s system of monitoring for bioweapons, a panel of scientists warned House lawmakers Thursday that America is grossly unprepared for a bioterrorist attack. Asha George, executive director of the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense, noted that U.S. funding for bioweapons protection has been on the decline since the end of the Cold War — this in spite of the relative ease by which terrorist groups can weaponize biological agents or, even more easily, get their hands on materials that have already been weaponized by the former Soviet Union.

  • PerspectiveAnthrax Redux: Did the Feds Nab the Wrong Guy?

    On 18 August 2008—after almost seven years, nearly 10,000 interviews, and millions of dollars spent developing a whole new form of microbial forensics—some of the FBI announced that it had concluded that Army biodefense researcher Bruce Ivins was the person responsible for the fall 2001 anthrax letter attacks. “It’s been 10 years since the deadliest biological terror attack in U.S. history launched a manhunt that ruined one scientist’s reputation and saw a second driven to suicide, yet nagging problems remain,” Noah Shachtman writes. “Problems that add up to an unsettling reality: Despite the FBI’s assurances, it’s not at all certain that the government could have ever convicted Ivins of a crime.”

  • Perspective: Designer pathogensIs There a Role for the Biological Weapons Convention in Oversight of Lab-Created Potential Pandemic Pathogens?

    Fourteen labs in the United States are working on creating mammalian-airborne-transmissible, highly-pathogenic, avian-influenza live viruses. These viruses are examples of lab-created potentially pandemic pathogens that bring up questions reflecting real concerns: Should details of this dual-use research be published? Could lab-created potentially pandemic pathogens be accidentally released from a laboratory into the community and seed a human pandemic? Could they be employed as biological weapons? The probability of accidental release into the community from one of the laboratories in this research enterprise is uncomfortably high. For these and other lab-created potentially pandemic pathogens, just one laboratory-infected researcher could seed a pandemic. Furthermore, a laboratory worker with hostile intent could introduce a potentially pandemic pathogen into the community.

  • Perspective: BiothreatsHackers Could Have Breached U.S. Bioterrorism Defenses for Years, Records Show. We’ll Never Know Whether They Did

    The Department of Homeland Security stored sensitive data from the nation’s bioterrorism defense program on an insecure website where it was vulnerable to attacks by hackers for over a decade, according to government documents reviewed by the Los Angeles Times. The data included the locations of at least some BioWatch air samplers, which are installed at subway stations and other public locations in more than 30 U.S. cities and are designed to detect anthrax or other airborne biological weapons, Homeland Security officials confirmed. It also included the results of tests for possible pathogens, a list of biological agents that could be detected and response plans that would be put in place in the event of an attack.

  • Perspective: BiodefenseLawmakers Seek Probe of Controversial Bioweapons Defense System

    The Trump administration’s attempt to deploy a scientifically disputed system for detecting airborne anthrax or other infectious agents in terrorist attacks is facing increased scrutiny from a bipartisan group of House members. in a three-page letter, four Democrats and Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee asked the Government Accountability Office to conduct an in-depth scientific evaluation of the new system, called BioDetection 21. Officials from the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, signaled that they plan to open the inquiry.

  • Perspective: BiotdefenseHow Does USAMRIID Shut Down Impact Nation’s Bioterrorism Laboratory Response Network?

    The Laboratory Response Network (LRN) is a collaborative federal effort run by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in cooperation with other federal agency and public health partners. The U.S. Army Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) Special Pathogens Laboratory at Fort Detrick is one of only three National Laboratories at the top of the protective umbrella of the LRN structure, along with those operated by the CDC and the Naval Medical Research Center (NMRC), responsible for specialized characterization of organisms, bioforensics, select agent activity, and handling highly infectious biological agents. It begs the question then, what happens when an important component of the nation’s biopreparedness infrastructure fails to meet CDC biosafety requirements and has its Federal Select Agent certification pulled?

  • Perspective: Biological warfareBashar al-Assad’s Updated, Sinister Version of Biological Warfare

    Biological warfare is generally understood as the deliberate wartime introduction of a lethal pathogen with the intent to kill or maim. Syria under President Bashar al-Assad is pursuing a sinister variation—one with long and dangerous historical precedents. Assad’s government has allowed pathogens normally controlled by public health measures—such as clean water, sanitation, waste disposal, vaccination, and infection control—to emerge as biological weapons through the deliberate destruction and withholding of those measures. The conflict has in effect reversed public health advances to achieve levels of disease not seen since the Napoleonic era.

  • AnthraxFighting anthrax by removing the bacterium’s armor

    Anthrax is a deadly and highly resilient disease, caused by the spore-forming bacterium Bacillus anthracis. Historically, it was a major cause of death in humans and cattle. has shown that removing the armor of the bacterium that causes anthrax slows its growth and negatively affects its ability to cause disease.

  • PerspectiveRe-thinking Biological Arms Control for the 21st Century

    International treaties prohibit the development and use of biological weapons. Yet concerns about these weapons have endured and are now escalating. Filippa Lentzos writes in a paper issued by the U.S. Marine Corps that a major source of the growing concern about future bioweapons threats stem from scientific and technical advances. Innovations in biotechnology are expanding the toolbox to modify genes and organisms at a staggering pace, making it easier to produce increasingly dangerous pathogens. Disease-causing organisms can now be modified to increase their virulence, expand their host range, increase their transmissibility, or enhance their resistance to therapeutic interventions. Scientific advances are also making it theoretically possible to create entirely novel biological weapons, by synthetically creating known or extinct pathogens or entirely new pathogens. Scientists could potentially enlarge the target of bioweapons from the immune system to the nervous system, genome, or microbiome, or they could weaponize ‘gene drives’ that would rapidly and cheaply spread harmful genes through animal and plant populations.

  • BiothreatsU.S. faces long-standing biological threats challenges

    GAO officials testified before a House committee on their efforts to identify and strengthen U.S. biodefense. GAO has also released a report highlighting the agency’s findings. Despite President Trump signing off on the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness and Advancing Innovations Act (PAHPA) on Monday, GAO says that there is still a lot of work to be done.

  • Biological catastrophe International community unprepared to deal with catastrophic biological event

    The risks of a global catastrophic biological event are growing, intensified by an increasingly interconnected world, terrorist and state interest in weapons of mass destruction, global political instability, and rapid advances in biotechnology. International leaders and organizations today are unprepared to react with the kind of effective, coordinated response needed to investigate and identify the pathogen, prevent the spread of disease, and, most importantly, save lives.

  • BiothreatsCongress passes legislation authorizing critical biodefense programs

    Last week the House passed the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness and Advancing Innovation Act. The bill reauthorizes existing statute governing public health efforts at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

  • BiothreatsBiodefense Manhattan Project

    The Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense will hold a day-long meeting to discuss a national, public-private research and development initiative to defend the United States against biological threats. The discussants will be “representatives from the same sorts of organizations that contributed to the original Manhattan Project,” the Blue Ribbon Panel says.

  • PerspectiveThe author of “World War Z” is worried about germ warfare

    What if Zika had been cooked up in a lab? Max Brooks, the author of World War Z, writes in Slate that in 2016, he asked that question in an op-ed for the New York Daily News. At the time, Zika was spreading across the country, and Congress seemed to be treating it like the common cold. But what about the next time? What if the next attack comes not from bacteria like anthrax but from a virus like the 1918 influenza? What if someone digs up a frozen, infected corpse or, like Amerithrax, smuggles the disease out of a lab? If we were caught by surprise by a natural outbreak like Zika—which is waning now but was devastating for those affected—how could we even hope to survive an artificial plague?