The Dangers of Genetically Engineered Bioweapons

'Last night [March 9, 1998], the National Public Radio program "Fresh Air" broadcast a chilling interview with acclaimed author Richard Preston. It addressed, among other points: the characteristics of biological weapons; their heinous effects on human beings; the degree to which such weapons are now in thehands of many countries hostile to, or potentially hostile to, the United States -- and possibly in the hands of dangerous sub-national groups, as well; and the ease with which BW programs can be concealed even from intrusive inspections conducted by highly skilled personnel. The following were among the most noteworthy of Mr. Preston's observations:

"There is a profound difference -- a world of difference -- between chemical weapons and biological weapons. Chemical weapons are poison gasses. They act locally and generally they touch your skin and they cause instantaneous death. Biological weapons are germs. They're organisms and they're alive. They may be specially engineered for purposes of warfare and terrorism. They can spread in an infectious process. So the biological weapon can be a strategic weapon. That is to say, it can have a terrible impact on a large human population very suddenly. 

"In certain significant respects, a contagious biological weapon may be more powerful than the hydrogen bomb because it can spread. It may also be more control -- uncontrollable.

"On about day three [following exposure to the anthrax virus], you suddenly die of anthrax pneumonia. The death is precipitate and it's an absolute crash. Doctors in the Soviet Union who observed patients dying of anthrax during an accident in 1979 reported that they would be talking to a patient at bedside, and the patient would be explaining how he felt, and he would die in mid-sentence. He would die between breaths. The anthrax spores produce a toxin as they multiply-- a toxin which actually causes a breathing arrest.

"If a major release of anthrax were to occur in an American city, say, it's quite conceivable that 50,000 or more people would be exposed to the plume of anthrax particles. It would be necessary to fly in, overnight, maybe three tons of antibiotics or a similar amount of vaccines, just to get them into that 50,000 people. If people were aware that they'd been exposed to a biological weapon, there would be a terrible public outcry for medicines immediately, to help calm the population and save lives.

"At the present time, the federal government is totally unprepared to do this. There isn't any stockpile of three tons of antibiotics anywhere in the United States and there isn't any system to get vaccines or antibiotics into an American population.(2)

"Ken Alibek [an anglized version of the name of a high-ranking Soviet official, Kanatjan Alibekov, who defected in 1992 from the USSR's covert BW program] ... has made the claim, and it is supported by some evidence, that in the early 1990s just before the Soviet Union broke up, researchers at a place called 'Vector' -- which is a huge laboratory in Siberia that was primarily dedicated to the development and production of virus weapons -- did genetic engineering on the smallpox virus.

"Now, smallpox virus, it turns out, may be quite amenable to genetic engineering. It's rather easy to open up the genome or the DNA of smallpox and put other things in there -- other types of viruses for example .... Whether they actually did this and whether they tested this is a matter of debate. But I think the bottom line is that genetic engineering is rather easy to do, and there's plenty of circumstantial, but troubling evidence, that a number of countries worldwide now are using genetic engineering to create new viruses for the purposes of weapons.

"The Russian biological weapons program has hit hard times. And many scientists -- no one knows the number -- appear to have gone abroad to other countries. The world may be entering a kind of quiet biological arms race. And the Soviets had the most advanced and successful bio-weapons program on Earth. They may well have sent people -- I should say that people may have just simply left Russia and gone to foreign countries, maybe carrying strains with them."'

(excerpted from Publications of the Center for Security Policy No. 98-D 44)