Bioterrorism Special Report
In the last century, terrorists used violence to try and get power or approval. Nowadays, those who feel marginalised within the world economy, from religious extremists to the merely unhinged, increasingly just want to kill people or damage industries. So far they have struck mainly with guns and bombs. But the perfect weapon for those who wish only to kill or destroy is germ warfare -- and we might have little defence.
Concern has risen mainly in the US, for several reasons. The US led the confrontation with Iraq, which tried to make bioweapons, and probably succeeded. This emerged during an unprecedented UN effort to hunt down and destroy Iraq's weapons -- an effort ultimately abandoned, some say prematurely.
There was also the defection of high-ranking Russian scientists to the US, complete with tales of the Soviets' enormous germ warfare industry and its frightening weapons. Whether or not Russia still has them, unknown clients abroad are paying bankrupt Russian labs to tell them how to build them.
Some are sceptical about bioterrorism. Building an anthrax bomb would take skill and effort and it is true that no one has succeeded with bioweapons so far. It is also true that guns and bombs are still pretty effective and easy to get hold of. And there has certainly been unwarranted scaremongering from the preparedness industry.
But the motivation and the means are there. Eventually some bioterrorist will attack. If you want to spread terror, disease is ideal. Epidemiological monitoring, the equivalent of the nuclear era's distant early warning, is not yet in place. Antibiotic and vaccine resistance, plus more accessible genetic engineering, raises the spectre of superbug weapons. Meanwhile vital agriculture is vulnerable. Diseases of livestock or crops disrupt economies and exports, and could tempt commercial competitors as well as classic terrorists.
So the world struggles to come to grips with the latest menace. There is a treaty banning biological weapons, but we are only now writing verification measures for it and they may not be effective. Efforts continue to unearth what has gone on in Russia, South Africa and Iraq. And scientists around the world are working on ways to detect and defeat, verify and prevent deliberate disease, from vaccines to DNA libraries to germ-proof sealant tape.
New Scientist has charted the rise in concern about bioterrorism, from Los Alamos to Siberia, and is following the story. Follow the links on this page to keep up to date with what's happening. Don't be afraid. Be informed.
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