NBC Weapons: The Great East Asian Bio Threat

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NUCLEAR, BIOLOGICAL AND CHEMICAL WEAPONS

July 3, 2011: On June 29th, Taiwan held several drills to test how well their emergency response personnel were when dealing with biological or chemical weapons. These drills are much more common in the West. But in East Asia, there has actually been a lot more use of biological weapons. Taiwan may be more concerned by state-sponsored biological attack, as in another Chinese ploy to take over the island without a risky invasion.

Part of this thinking is due to the availability of biological weapons in East Asia. For example, two years ago, there was an outbreak of pneumonic plague in China, with several dozen cases, and a few deaths. This is the same disease that killed over a quarter of Europe's population in the 14th century. Before that, it did similar damage across Eurasia, all the way to China and Southeast Asia. Plague (usually the bubonic version, caught from insect bites, rather than the more rare pneumonic form, spread by sneezing) is no longer the big killer it once was. That's mainly because of better public health, and particularly because of the development of antibiotics in the 1940s. Plague, unlike most mass killers, is not caused by a virus, but by a bacteria.

East Asian nations have demonstrated a keen interest in biological weapons. Thus at the same time British researchers were developing penicillin during World War II, the Japanese Army, in the form of Unit 731 in northern China, was trying to turn plague into a weapon. This proved impossible to do. The Japanese dropped bombs filled with fleas (the normal carriers of Bubonic Plague) on Chinese villages, and the result was often no plague cases at all.

Plague still survives, in animal populations, all over the world. But in the last century, there have been only about 100-150 cases a year, and only about ten percent of them resulted in deaths. The last big outbreak in the United States was in Los Angeles in 1924, when there were 38 cases, most of them fatal. There are still periodic outbreaks in the American West, where people encounter plague infected animals in remote areas. But medical personnel in those areas know the symptoms, and quickly administer antibiotics. Thus there are few deaths.

The recent deaths in China make for good headlines, but apparently efforts to design (via genetic engineering) a "Super Pneumonic Plague" that is resistant to antibiotics, has not succeeded yet. There are much better super-germ opportunities with viruses. But the main problem with any of these biological weapons is that they kill indiscriminately. Turn it loose, and your own population is at risk. A more serious problem is the increasing ease with which scientists can do genetic engineering on viruses and bacteria. It's likely that eventually, a super (as in killer) germ will be created and released by accident, because some bright (but doomed) teenager couldn't resist messing about with mom's genetic engineering gear.

There have been many attempts to use biological weapons. Until quite recently, they have been largely unsuccessful. Between 1900 and the Summer of 2001, there were 262 attempts to use bioweapons worldwide. Since September 11, 2001, there have been surprisingly few. With exception of a few Japanese biowarfare attacks on Chinese in World War II, 60 percent of these bio attacks were by terrorists and 40 percent were purely criminal (extortion, attempted murder). However, 66 percent of these 262 attacks were hoaxes, 21 were threats that never came off and only 13 percent real attacks. Of these actual attacks, 24 percent were in the United States , and resulted in no fatalities. But the 76 percent that occurred outside the United States did kill 77 people. The Japanese Aum Shinri Kyo cult made 20 attacks between April 1990 and July 1995. Half the attacks were with biological weapons (Botulinum toxin and Anthrax), but these only killed eight people. Most of the rest of the attacks used VX and Sarin nerve gas. Most of these attacks caused only a handful of injuries. But one Sarin attack, with gas released in five subway cars, killed twelve people and sent over 5,000 to the hospital (but only a fifth of these had noticeable nerve gas injuries.)

The Aum Shinri Kyo members included many skilled engineers and scientists, graduates of Japan's best universities. Aum Shinri Kyo also had plenty of money (over $300 million). Recognizing the shortcomings of their biological and chemical weapons, Aum Shinri Kyo was getting into molecular engineering when the organization was broken up by the police in 1996. Had Aum Shinri Kyo been able to keep at it for a few more years, they might have been able to develop far more deadly designer bugs that, so far, have only been produced in American, Russian and, it is suspected, Chinese military labs.

Many other terrorist organizations have tried to develop and use biological weapons. During World War I, a pro-German doctor in Washington created a supply of Anthrax and Glanders. He then used pro-German dock workers to use these two agents to infect animals being shipped to Europe for the war against Germany. This effort was not terribly successful, but it did have an effect and shows how one man, with the proper knowledge and resources, can create and employ biological weapons.

But there is a major problem, biological weapons are difficult to distribute. Yes, it's true that you can hold a quart bottle that could contain enough of some toxin to kill millions. But that's only if you can deliver to each of these people the minute amount of toxin that will kill them. This has proved to be more complex and intractable a problem than terrorists or government scientists initially realized. Moreover, the bio agents tend to be greatly weakened (or destroyed) by exposure to sun, wind or moisture. In other words, you need some very specific weather conditions for a biological weapon to spread, and the conditions you need are rare, or subject to change unexpectedly. This is what the Aum Shinri Kyo kept running into during their many unsuccessful biological weapons attacks. Even releasing bio weapons inside a building's air conditioning system can run afoul of air filters and the like.

Perhaps the most discouraging aspect of terrorist use of biological and chemical weapons is that your attacks are often ignored. This was the Aum Shinri Kyo experience, where many of there carefully prepared and carried out attacks were ignored, even when they caused some injuries. Locals would comment "must have been something in the air," or, "it's the weather" in the wake of the attacks. Not the stuff to be picked up by the media, even if one or two bodies were hauled away. This is the ultimate disappointment for a terrorist, not to be noticed by the media.

 


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