What is bioterrorism?
Bioterrorism is a form of terrorism where there is the intentional release of biological agents (bacteria, viruses, or other germs). This is also referred to as germ warfare. Terrorism is defined by the United States government as the “unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” The term “terrorism” does not imply what weapon is being used.
In addition to biological agents, terrorists can also utilize traditional weapons (guns), chemical agents and nuclear bombs. While a biological agent may injure or kill people, animals, or plants, the goal for the terrorist is to further their social and political goals by making their civilian targets feel as if their government cannot protect them. Many biological agents are found in nature; however, they can be modified by the terrorist to make them more dangerous. Some of these agents can be transmitted from person to person, and the infection may take hours or days to become apparent.
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What are the biological agents that can be utilized for bioterrorism?
While any germ, bacteria, or virus could potentially be utilized by a terrorist, there are a number of biological agents that have been recognized as being more likely to be utilized. The reason for these agents being of concern is based on their availability to terrorists and the ease by which these agents can be disseminated.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has developed a classification system for biological terror agents, which is available on their website (Categories). The classification is based on the likelihood of the agent being used and the risk posed by each agent.
The agents (and the diseases they cause) are listed in table 1, including hyperlinks for those wishing to learn more about a specific agent or disease. However, it is almost impossible for most people to memorize all the details about each of these agents. It is more important for the general public to understand the risk of bioterrorism and the appropriate response to a terrorist attack.
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BIOTERRORISM AGENTS AND THE DISEASES THEY CAUSE
- Biologic agent Disease caused by the agent.
- Bacillus anthracis Anthrax.
- Clostridium botulinum toxin Botulism.
- Yersinia pestis.
- Variola major Smallpox.
- Francisella tularensis Tularemia.
- Filoviruses (for example, Ebola, Marburg) and arenaviruses (for example, Lassa, Machupo) Viral hemorrhagic fevers.
- Brucella species Brucellosis.
- Epsilon toxin of Clostridium perfringens Food poisoning.
- Salmonella species, Escherichia coliO157:H7, Shigella.
- Food poisoning.
- Burkholderia mallei Glanders.
- Burkholderia pseudomallei Melioidosis.
- Chlamydia psittaci.
- Coxiella burnetii Q fever.
- Ricinus communis (castor beans) Ricin toxin poisoning.
- Staphylococcal enterotoxin B Food poisoning.
- Rickettsia prowazekii Epidemic typhus.
- Vibrio cholerae Cholera.
- Cryptosporidium parvum Cryptosporidiosis.
- Alphaviruses (for example, Venezuelan equine encephalitis, eastern equine encephalitis, western equine encephalitis) and flaviviruses (for example, West Nile encephalitis, Saint Louis encephalitis, dengue fever).
- Viral encephalitis.
- Influenza virus.
- Mycobacterium tuberculosis.
- MDR TB and XDR TB.
What are the causes of bioterrorism in food?
There are a number of bacteria and bacterial toxins that could potentially be used to infect the food supply. These include Clostridium botulinum toxin, Clostridium perfringens toxin, Salmonella species, Escherichia coli O157:H7, Shigella, and Staphylococcal enterotoxin B. The one that is most dangerous and most likely to be used in bioterrorism is Clostridium botulinum toxin, which causes botulism.
India’s Bioterrorism Preparedness:-
Bioterrorism is Intentional & deliberate release of biological agents (bacteria, viruses, or toxins) to cause mass illness or death of people, animals, or plants. It is said that if the 20th century was the century of physics, the 21st century will be the century of biology. Thus, Bioterrorism is posed to be the next possible threat the civilized world faces. The first disease used as a tool for bioterrorism was Bubonic Plague in 14th century.
It was used to infiltrate enemy cities. This coupled with less advanced medical technologies cause the bubonic plague quickly move across all of Europe, destroying a large portion of its population. Anthrax was used during First World War by Germany to infect the mules and horses of enemies.
In September and October 2001, several cases of anthrax broke out in the United States in the 2001 anthrax attacks, caused deliberately. Letters laced with infectious anthrax were delivered to news media offices and the U.S Congress. The letters killed 5.
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Bioterrorism is different from various other forms of terrorism because of the following:-
Biological agents are:-
- relatively easy and inexpensive to obtain.
- can be easily disseminated.
- can cause widespread fear and panic beyond the actual physical damage they can cause.
- Risk of massive destruction in the form of life is too high.
- Exposure to minute quantities of a biological agent may go unnoticed, yet ultimately be the cause of disease and death.
- They don’t work immediately. The incubation period of a microbial agent can be days or weeks; unlike a bombing, knifing, or chemical dispersion, a bioterrorism attack might not be recognized until long after the agent’s release.
- However, it is quite difficult to keep bio-weapons as military asset because there are certain important limitations. One is that bioweapons cannot differentiate between foes and friends. So far, Biological weapons have been used to create mass panic only.
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Different kinds of Bioterrorism agents:-
There are basically 3 types of agents used based on the ability and extent of damage that can be caused. They are:—
- Category A: High-priority agents which result in high mortality rates and have the potential for a mass impact. The intensity and speed of impact can trigger panic in local populations.
- Category B: Moderate-priority agents cause relatively less damage.
- Category C: Low-priority agents are emerging pathogens that are readily available and can thus be easily mutated or engineered to get desired results in a short span of time.
- Examples of the above three categories are shown below:
More details about the above agents can be found here on Wikipedia. Apart from the above, the latest entrants on the scene are the designer substances such as designer viruses, which are used to target specific organs which can possibly incapacitate or kill the host on contact.
Mode of Attack:-
The bioterrorist agents are highly sophisticated and thus have the ability to pass through many screen tests. They can thus be spread either by human contact, via any material like books, letters, sprays in crowded places like Cinema halls, Malls, etc., drones, robots, scud missiles etc.
Bioterrorism threat to India and our Bioterrorism Preparedness:-
There had been several sporadic incidents of bioterrorism in past but the October 2001 use of anthrax letters in the United States was one incident that killed five people and triggered a worldwide alarm. There are no confirmed incidents of a bioterrorism attack in India yet, in 2001, the office of the Deputy Chief Minister of Maharashtra had received an envelope having anthrax culture. It wakes up Indian security agencies and consequently several incidents were suspected to be acts of bioterrorism.
Some of them are as follows:-
- 1994, Pneumonic plague attack in Surat.
- 1996, Dengue hemorrhagic fever attack in Delhi.
- 1999, Anthrax attack in Midnapore.
- 2001, the Mystery ‘encephalitis attack in Siliguri.
- To strengthen the area of bio-defense, though the United States passed the ‘Bioterrorism Act of 2002’ but in India, we still have no such dedicated law. The Bioterrorism Act of 2002 makes provision of an essential element of national preparedness against bioterrorism in the United States and it focuses on the safety of drugs, food and water from biological agents and toxins. India’s has so far, put efforts mainly via NDMA, NDRF and DRDO. Some DRDO labs are active in this area of research and have developed protective systems and equipments for protection of Indian troops against the nuclear, biological and chemical warfare.
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The efforts can be enumerated as follows:——
- National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) has taken several initiatives has existing battalions of National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), trained to deal with chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) threats.
- Installing specific surveillance systems that have the capacity to recognise patterns of non-specific threats.
- Disease Surveillance Project (IDSP), a decentralized and state-based surveillance program, 2004 which integrates the public sector, private sector, rural and urban health system, and has incorporation of communicable and non-communicable systems (unusual clinical syndromes may be included during public health emergencies).
Issues to meet the challenge of bioterrorism
There is a need for coordinated and concerted efforts of different government agencies viz. the intelligence agency, the army, the BSF, SSB, law enforcement machinery, health departments and civil administration etc. to meet the challenge of bioterrorism. The threat of bioterrorism places a heavy demand on India’s public health system which would need to mitigate and ameliorate the consequences of a bioterrorism attack. Our country lacks an effective public health system and that is why, any event of bioterrorism can create havoc in the country.
Thus, making a strong public health system is prerequisite to effectively handle the threat. For this, the various components of the Public Health System such as surveillance, assessment, medical management, information and education, etc. needs to be made stronger. Further, there is a need to make the national stockpile of drugs readily available in case of an incidence.
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Some other fundamental steps needed are:-
- The spread of awareness.
- Readiness with drugs and medicines.
- Readiness with decontamination procedures.
Biological Terrorism: The Indian Context:-
It is estimated that at present, at least 10 and perhaps 17 nations in the world possess biological warfare agents. Out of 7 countries listed by United States Department of state in sponsoring international terrorism, at least 5 are suspected to have biological warfare programme.
These are Iran, Libya, Syria, North Korea and Sudan. In the Indian context, with the existence of hostile neighbors like Pakistan and Bangladesh, threat of biological warfare cannot be ruled out entirely. Besides the above state actors, there are numerous non-state actors in India and her neighborhood. Way back in 1987, there was a communiqué issued by an unidentified Tamil militant group threatening to make use of biological agents in their struggle for independence against Sri Lanka.
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In this communiqué, this group had threatened to spread bilbariasis (river blindness) and “Yellow Fever” among human populations of Sri Lanka and poisoning the water supplies, besides attacking rubber and tea plantations with leaf curl and rust diseases respectively. In 2002, the Pentagon reported finding traces of anthrax at suspected al Qaeda biological weapons site along with equipment used in biological warfare programme in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
4 Other samples found at the site tested positive for poison “Ricin”. Later some sketches and calculations to make helium powered balloon bomb filled with anthrax were found in the Kabul office of a NGO headed by Bashiruddin Mehmood, one of the two Pakistani nuclear scientists detained in Islamabad for questioning on their alleged links with Osama Bin Laden. George J. Tenet, the then director of the CIA was quoted “documents recovered from the al Qaeda facilities in Afghanistan show that Bin Laden was pursuing a sophisticated biological weapons research programme.” Similarly, a report prepared by the UN panel of experts has mentioned that there is a risk of the al Qaeda acquiring and using biological weapons to perpetrate its terrorist actions.
5 Al Qaeda links with four terrorist groups in India are well established. These groups are Lashkar-e-Toiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Harkat-ul-Jihad-ul-Islami and Harkat-ulMujahidin. Like al Qaeda, all these groups specialize in suicide bombings, attack heart of the government like important cities and cites of strategic importance and they have all attacked and killed foreigners.
It is because of the close link of these terrorist groups with al Qaeda, that there is real danger of these terrorist groups launching a biological attack in India in future. Similarly, al-Qaeda can take help of organized criminal gangs like that of Dawood Ibrahim and Tiger Memon, on the lines of Mumbai serial bomb blasts of 1993, in launching biological attacks in India.
Similarly, chances of extremist groups operating in North east, Naxalite groups etc using biological weapons cannot be ruled out, though keeping in view the sophisticated nature of equipment, technology and manpower required for any such operation, the chances look less likely. And finally, chances of a deranged scientist attempting to indulge in such a misadventure, just to show his expertise, like cyber hackers will always remain.
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