A few weeks ago, New York was hit by an outbreak of the West Nile virus. Five people died and another 50 were sickened before authorities were able to respond. West Nile fever is a rare, encephalitic virus that is common in Africa and Asia, but had never before been diagnosed in the Western Hemisphere. That raises questions and fears about the origin of this outbreak. Health experts are examining conventional explanations for the appearance of the disease, but national security officials have questioned whether there is another aspect to this incident. While there is no cause for immediate alarm, there is every reason to be concerned about the growing risk of bioterrorism.
The West Nile virus is usually carried by birds and mosquitoes that rarely stray across the Atlantic Ocean. U.S. health authorities are not sure what started the outbreak, but they suspect it was carried by an imported bird. Most experts agree with that assessment, but the outbreak fits nicely with the claims in a book by an alleged Iraqi defector, who asserts that Iraqi scientists have tried to develop a modified strain of West Nile virus to use as a biological weapon. Experts think it unlikely: West Nile virus is weak and it is almost impossible to control. Terrorists would have no guarantee that it would actually hit the target.
Even though the latest incident is probably unrelated to terrorism, there is is mounting concern about the likelihood of such an attack. As U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen said recently, “The question is no longer if this will happen, but when.”
For the Japanese, “when” was March 1995, when Aum Shinrikyo released sarin gas on the Tokyo subways, an act of terrorism that killed 12 people, injured hundreds more and terrified millions. Only later was it discovered that Aum had sought to aerosolize anthrax and botulinum toxin eight times throughout Tokyo in its mad efforts to hasten the apocalypse.
The sarin attack and the subsequent investigation alerted the world to the rising importance of a new type of terrorist: small groups of disaffected individuals who sought no political advantage from their actions, just chaos. The United States got its own taste of the new terror when Islamic fundamentalists tried to blow up the World Trade Center in New York City in 1993. Law enforcement officials have had to adjust their thinking to account for the aims and methods of these new groups. They have had to recognize that biological weapons, once derided as too clumsy to be effective, are perfect tools for these 21st-century terrorists.
Traditionally, governments have relied on the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention to combat the risk of bioterror. That treaty bans the development, production and stockpiling of bacterial and toxic weapons. But it has proven to be of limited efficacy. Not only are the new actors beyond its purview, but many of the signatories have ignored its provisions. Defectors from Russia have testified that the Soviet Union expanded its bioweapons program after signing the BWC. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, those researchers have been eagerly recruited by the 25 governments that are said to be developing their own bioweapons arsenals.
Governments are responding to this new threat. Negotiators have been working since 1995 to put some teeth into the BWC. Diplomats report that there has been progress on the difficult questions of verification and inspections and offer cautious hope that an agreement to stop the cheating could be ready by next year. Individual governments have stepped up their programs to fight bioterror. The U.S., for example, is budgeting $1.4 billion for the cause. Japan should do likewise.
On the international level, more coordination is needed. Cognizant of the new ease with which pathogens travel through the global village, health and disease-control authorities have stepped up their cooperation, but more can be done. Databases can be created and stockpiles of vaccines prepared. Although every nation has a different emergency-response program, some standardization is possible; basic manuals can be worked out and checklists developed.
Finally, there is another thing that governments should do to fight bioterror: be realistic. Although there is a rising threat of new forms of terrorism, it would be irresponsible to make the danger seem bigger than it really is. A few months ago, there were a series of false alarms in the U.S. after press reports on worries about the use of anthrax as a weapon. That is one of the best ways to undermine a credible program to fight bioterror. Of all the contagions governments must combat, the two most dangerous may well be panic and apathy.
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