Out of the ashes of anthrax rises the future world order
Dr Dlawer Ala'Aldeen PhD MRCPath:
Chairman, Kurdish Scientific and Medical Association
The long dreaded bio-terror is a reality now, infecting the heart of business and democracy, and is now moving between continents. For the second time in a decade, the United States and United Kingdom find themselves cutting strange deals to rally friends and foes to protect yet another fragile coalition. In the process, the leaders of freedom-loving countries are forced to compromise on the very basic principles of human rights and “foreign policy with human face”. There is nothing new in this, but could it be the start of a new era, the spark of a new world order?
Agents of bioterror: Almost any infective agent, that can damage humans can be considered a potential bioweapon. It is interesting that the list of agents stockpiled by the Russians and Americans includes agents as ineffective as typhus, Q-fever and brucella which are not fatal in the modern era of antibiotics and include crop damaging agents such as wheat stem rust and rice blast that will not affect humans. Iraqi bioweapon programme also included animal agents such as Camel pox.
Of the endless list of possible agents, which are invariably either bacteria or viruses, only anthrax, plague, small pox and botulinum toxin are thought to be likely agents to be used by terrorists. Of these, anthrax is probably the most serious bioterror agent because it needs the simplest of manufacturing infrastructure and is most durable and suitable for many forms of delivery, including, as we have seen, by mail. However, like most chemical and biological weapons (CBWs), anthrax is largely a horror agent. In the modern era most biological agents are now poor weapons in battle zones because soldiers are trained to fight in chemical and biological protection suits, and are usually vaccinated against the bacterium. The question therefore is why then are member states of the United Nations obsessed with producing and stockpiling them? What is the anthrax agent? Anthrax is caused by a bacterium called Bacillus anthracis. Under the microscope it is rod shaped and, when stained with a special dye (Gram stain), it has the distinctive look of a match box. The bacterium grows fast in the presence of plenty of nutrition, such as in-vivo in humans or in-vitro in laboratory culture media. This is the vegetative form. When the organism runs out of food, or faces a harsh physiological environment, it reduces its biological activity to absolute minimum. It forms a rigid capsule around its DNA and essential enzymes and brings life to almost total standstill. This capsulated form of the bug is called the “spore”. Sporulation is not only a key to survival, but also to transportation and dissemination. Spores are tinny, easily air-born and can remain viable in the for decades in the soil until transmitted to a nutritious environment again, such as mammalian body. Anthrax is primarily the disease of herbivore animal who would ingest soil-contaminated vegetables and develop intestinal anthrax, followed by blood poisoning and death. Humans acquire from herbivores via contaminated animal products.
What is anthrax? Anthrax denotes the clinical conditions that arise from infection with B. anthracis. The word anthrax is derived from the Greek “anthrakis” (black), which is the colour of the classical postulating skin lesion, known as the “malignant pustule”. This form of anthrax is by far the most common, and the mildest, form of the disease and is an occupational health problem. Now extremely rare in UK and USA, is an occupational health problem. affecting the exposed parts of the body in those who handle infected animals or their products (e.g. meat, wool, goat-hair).
The skin form of anthrax is the most likely one to be acquired from mail-delivered spores and is treatable with antibiotics. In the absence of treatment, cutaneous anthrax can become complicated and develop into fatal blood poisoning.. Another form of anthrax is the intestinal one, acquired via ingestion of contaminated animal products and may be fatal. This is even rarer in the UK than the skin form and is most unlikely to be acquired from the envelope delivered spores.
In contrast, the more severe form of the disease is the inhalational (pulmonary) anthrax, which is almost 90% fatal, unless aborted at the incubation period or treated at the early prodromal phase (when the first flu-like signs and symptoms start appearing). Here, air-borne spores are inhaled, reach the lungs and are transported via to middle part of the chest (mediastinal lymph nodes), where they germinate. The period between inhalation and germination could be as short as a couple of days or as long as 60 days or more (hence the recommended period of antibiotic prophylaxis). After germination, the organism grows exponentially and within a few days manifest itself as full-blown pulmonary anthrax.
Replicating bacteria release powerful toxins (poisons) that cause swelling, haemorrhage and cell death in the infected tissues (hence the black colour and the name anthrakis). The number of inhaled spores sufficient to kill a person is any thing between a few thousands to a few tens of thousands, depending on the victims health status.
Can terrorists prepare anthrax spores:
The Japanese group of Aum Shinrikyo sect, which consisted of skilled medics and scientists, produced and disseminated (unsuccessfully) anthrax spores in Japan. An anthrax-vaccinated terrorist with basic microbiology skills can easily manufacture quantities of anthrax spores from local animal isolates. There is no shortage of bacterial isolates in endemic areas, such as Africa and Middle East. The essential tools and elements can be found in a domestic kitchen. Concentrates anthrax cultures can just as easily reduced to crude spore-enriched powders. However, production of refined, weapon-grade, spores that can be more efficiently aerosolised will require more sophisticated biotechnology infrastructure, which is unlikely to have been established by Al-Qaida’s in Afghanistan.
Can terrorists access established sources from UN member states? For a more than a decade, there has been major concerns about the fate of old Soviet stocks that were left unprotected. Many countries, and possibly terrorist groups, are thought to have attempted to take advantage of the power vacuum that immediately followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. The latest USA anthrax isolates are unlikely to have originated from Soviet CBW plants, they are said to be sensitive to penicillin and doxycycline (the two first line antibiotics in naturally occurring anthrax). Russian scientists are known to have engineered strains resistant to these antibiotics. The latest American outbreak is thought to have originated from a single source and the strain is thought to be a derivative of the virulent “Ames strain” which is used by researchers around the world. This strain was first isolated in the 1950s from a dead animal in Ames, Iowa and has been passed around between researchers.
Iraq is another likely source of anthrax for the Al-Qaida terrorists who would have plenty in common with the regime in Baghdad. In an interview with the Al-Jazeera satellite channel in 1998, Bin Laden stressed, shockingly, that it is his religious duty to acquire CBWs. Mr Dick Cheney, US Vice-President, also admitted that Bin Laden has over the years tried to acquire CBWs, and the US Government have copies of the manuals that Al-Qaida have actually used to train people with respect to “how to deploy and use these kinds of substances”.
Mr Richard Butler, the latest UN’s Chief CBW inspector who inspected Iraq for several years in the 1990s, reported that Mohammad Atta (the senior hijacker who died in the first plane crash in New York) had met Iraqi officials in Prague in June 2001, when deadly presents could have changed hands. Mr Butler also emphasised that Iraq had rebuilt its CBW programme since the UN inspections were stopped a few years ago. Saddam is known to have had hidden undeclared CBW stocks in residential areas and in closely guarded ordinary graves in Baghdad cemeteries; indeed experts believe that no less than half of Iraq’s old stockpiles probably remain unaccounted for. Furthermore, Iraq is thought to have recently acquired gigantic bacteriological fermenters that are required for mass production of bacterial cultures.
Despite these, the US and UN Governments are reluctant to point fingers at Iraq or the Al-Qaida terrorists. This is probably because they are trying to protect the fragile coalition which includes the pro-Iraqi Russians, Chinese and Arab states. They are also attempting to avoid infuriating many Arabs and Muslims who have long been exploited by Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.
Can the terrorists deliver spores efficiently? The Aum Shinrikyo cult of Japan, who managed to poison Tokyo underground commuters with the nerve agent, sarin, failed to deliver anthrax successfully in and around the city, despite repeated attempts. The latest envelop-delivery method is the poorest of all methods one could think of. The worst that it can cause is the skin form of anthrax and rarely, but tragically, inhalational form. It is, however, a major publicity-attracting form that created panic, disrupted peoples social lives and will no doubt inflict further damage to the US economy. The nightmare scenario is if the terrorists were able to make the spores air-born and cause more inhalational anthrax in least suspecting populations. The terrorists were able to aerosolise anthrax in the ventilation system of US House of Representatives, but congressmen are not the least suspecting population.
Atta is known to have enquired about crop-dusting planes in Florida, not far from where the first case was discovered. His plan might have been to spray American cities with spores and cause inhalational anthrax . In 1972, WHO experts suggested that 50 Kg of anthrax spores, released from an aircraft over an urban population of five million would cause 250,000 cases of the disease. Another report estimated that releasing a cloud of 100 Kg of spores upwind of Washington DC could cause between 130,000 and 3m deaths. This explains why crop-dusting planes have all been grounded in the US. However, the biggest worry is the thought of the quantities of anthrax spores that Atta was planning to aerosolise. Surely, he must have been thinking about more than just a few envelope-loads. Worse, did he bring back any thing other than anthrax from Prague, e.g. nerve agents that Iraqi has used previously.
Should we be concerned? Our best defence in the West is clearly our knowledge combined with the current high state of alert. The police and health care workers have a higher index of suspicion, and in the UK we have always been well-placed to deal with deliberate CBW incidents and outbreaks, which are not that different from those occurring naturally or by accident. There are policies for outbreak-controls and contingency plans have been issued (now revised in the light of recent events) by the Department of Health. Our defence will be further strengthened by informing and reassuring our public, including the healthcare workers. Anthrax does not spread easily between people and remains susceptible to many antibiotics, and, in the UK at least, there will be no shortage of antibiotic supply. Vaccine supply will not be an issue as vaccination will only be considered for a selected few, including those whose job it is to search, identify and/or control outbreaks. By now, the British public have learnt enough about the terrorists’ ill-chosen method of anthrax delivery, therefore, the risk of big outbreaks is minimal. However, the terrorists, by definition, are there to terrify and in that they have partly succeeded in the USA.
The role of the UN. Long and agonising discussions among nations since 1925, lead to several CBW-related conventions and treaties over the decades. The treaty of 1972 was considered inadequate and after 21 years of further discussions, a relatively comprehensive chemical weapons convention was signed in Paris in 1993 under the title "The Convention on the Prohibition of the Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on Their Destruction", which is self-explanatory. However, little progress has been made in terms of its implementation. So much so that no serious international measures were taken to prevent further spread into the hand of small groups and terrorists. The list of countries now known, or strongly believed, to possess CBW number more than 19, all of whom are signatories of the above treaty. They include Algeria, China, Cuba, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Libya, North Korea, South Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Sudan, Syria, Taiwan, USA, Viet Nam and Yugoslavia. Iraq is the only country documented by the United Nations to have breached the treaties and to have used CW against the neighbouring Iran and the Kurdish population inside its own boundaries. Therefore, it is the urgent task of the United Nations to put an end, once and for all, to the production, proliferation and use of biological weapons.
The future world order: President Bush insists that “the best defence against terrorism is a strong offensive against terrorists”. At last, perhaps, the world’s only superpower is now focused on making the world a better place to live in. Throughout the Cold War, the Soviets and the Western democracies were heavily engaged in supporting powerful dictators in order to secure business and influence in strategic parts of the world, riding roughshod over fundamental principles of civil rights and turning a blind eye to clear violations of human rights by their “trade-partners”. The US and UK fully supported Iraq’s campaign to stop the Iranian business-unfriendly Islamic fundamentalism. Saddam’s massive programme of CBW (built by Western companies) was allowed to continue and the poisoning with Nerve gas of 15000 Kurdish civilians in Halabje (Kurdistan, Iraq) went unnoticed. Only when Saddam endangered Western interests by invading Kuwait, military action taken to stop him. He was punished but left injured and abandoned for the past decade.
In sharp contrast, the West fully supported the most primitive Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan to stop the spread of communism. The job was done, the Soviet Union collapsed and Afghanistan too was abandoned, as repeatedly acknowledged by Tony Blair in recent weeks. Blair promised not to abandon Afghanistan after this war and went on mediating between Arabs and Israelis.
Phase two of this campaign is supposed to uproot the causes of terrorism. This time they better not fail, for even worse is likely to come. Iraq is thought to have had made serious progress late 1980s in making and testing nuclear bombs. The fundamentalist Shi’as of Iran are thought to have made serious progress on this track too and Pakistan, ruled by a military dictator, successfully tested a nuclear bomb recently. The threat of weapons of mass destruction has never been greater and will not diminish, given the conflict-ridden globe of today. Tony Blair and George Bush are now morally committed to a project that has no end. Inevitably they would have win the backing of countries at the expense of suppressed minorities. The Russians, the Chinese and the Turks will now have the free hand of managing “internal affairs” in Chechnya, Tibet and Kurdistan in the manner they deem appropriate. The ruling Generals of Pakistan will take charge of implementing “democracy” in the neighbouring Afghanistan.
The cold war era was disastrous for the disadvantaged people of the Third World, and the so called “New World Order” was not any different. We have to acknowledge that a better world requires a stable world, achievable through settled disputes and protected human rights. Good business requires stable markets, which requires stable democracies, as we have learnt in Europe. Widespread democracy will pave the way for establishing a better harmonious global village, where there should be no room for gross human right abuses. [End].
Table of bioweapon agents on next page
|List of microbial agents of USA, Russia and Iraq|
|Eastern and Western equine
Korean hemorrhagic fever
Bolivian hemorrhagic fever
Melioidosis dengue fever
Rift Valley fever
Chikungunya disease virus
Rice brown spot disease
Late blight of potato
Stem rust of cereal
Newcastle disease virus
Fowl plague virus
Russian spring-summer encephalitis
African swine fever virus
Wheat stem rust
Wheat cover smut
Hemorrhagic conjuctivitis virus
Venezuelan equine encephalomyelitis
Argentinian hemorrhagic fever
Venezuelan equine encephalomyelitis
Argentinian hemorrhagic fever
Published in www.Kurdishmedia.com on 26 October, 2001.