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The arrest of several individuals in London on suspicion of producing the poison ricin has reawakened concerns about bioterrorism. Biological warfare has a long history; the first recorded use occurred in 1346, when Tartars catapulted corpses infected with plague into a city they held under siege. Yet, despite that history — and even more recent attacks — most nations are woefully unprepared for terrorist attacks using biological weapons. Even Japan, which experienced its own terrorist attacks a few years ago, has been slow to respond.

Public consciousness of the threat of bioterrorism spiked immediately after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when letters carrying anthrax spores killed several people in the United States. Al-Qaeda was originally suspected of being behind the mailings, but no individual has been arrested for the acts. The investigations appear to have made no progress in over a year.

Fears have receded despite repeated warnings that most nations are unprepared for a large-scale emergency or the panic that might follow the mere threat of such an attack. The discovery of ricin in London should spark renewed concern.

Ricin is one of the most powerful poisons found in nature. It comes from the seeds of the castor plant, ricinus communis, better known as the source of castor oil. Even a small dose of ricin can be fatal if taken internally. There is no vaccine or antidote. Producing ricin is not difficult and procuring the beans is not terribly hard either: One million are processed each year to make castor oil.

Last week, seven North Africans were arrested in a London suburb. Alarms went off when traces of ricin were found in their apartment. Since then, four of the seven have been charged with “possessing articles of value to a terrorist” under Britain’s Terrorism Act of 2000 and involvement in developing or producing “chemical weapons” under the Chemical Weapons Act of 1996. This week, six more people were arrested by British antiterrorism police, reportedly in connection with the ricin discovery.

Experts agree that ricin is relatively easy to make. It has been the bioweapon of choice for extremists and antigovernment groups in the U.S. When the coalition forces took Kabul from the Taliban, they found al-Qaeda plans to produce ricin as well as traces of the substance at suspected biological weapons sites in Afghanistan. Iraq is known to have included ricin in its biological weapons program.

Although the poison may be easy to make, it is hard to use. The poison is most famous for being used in the 1978 assassination of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov in London. He was stabbed with an umbrella that contained a pellet with ricin in it. Using it for mass attacks is much more difficult. Absorption through the skin is not very effective, which means that it has to be deployed as an aerosol, and converting the oil is a tricky procedure. Moreover, experts estimate that it would take 4 tons of ricin dispersed by aerosol to kill half of the people within 100 sq. km; the same results would be achieved by a kilogram of anthrax.

Terror depends on public perception as much as an actual threat. Fear that there is a substantial amount of ricin in circulation — and the British authorities admit that they found residue from ricin production, not the product itself — could cause substantial social unrest. Public awareness of the realities of bioweapons — in addition to the risks of their use — is essential to combating bioterrorism.

Just as important is an infrastructure to deal with such attacks. Government records are spotty here. Japan has already spent 57 billion yen on bioterror preparations, but experts worry that it is not enough. This failure is inexplicable given Japan’s history with bioterrorism and the Aum Shinrikyo attacks on Tokyo subways in 1995.

Real protection against bioterrorism requires an integrated plan that takes action on several levels. First, the materials needed to produce such weapons must be safeguarded. Japanese officials insist that laboratories are protected and theft is not possible. Unfortunately, some biological weapons can be produced from ordinary items — such as castor beans — and controlling all such products is virtually impossible.

Second, health facilities need to be prepared to handle biological attacks. That means having the capability to diagnose an attack and then treat it. Monitoring systems need to be in place to identify a disease outbreak, trace it to its source, contain and ultimately treat it. Public health officials stress that in many biological attacks, a quick response is crucial. Many diseases, such as anthrax, are fatal if left untreated, but they can be cured if identified early and treated correctly. That means having supplies of antidotes on hand when outbreaks occur.

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