Now, adding to world’s woes, bioter­ror­ism

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has de­clared its in­ten­tion to re­spond faster and more ef­fec­tively to bioter­ror­ism. But at least two bizarre in­ci­dents among drug abusers in Europe force us to ques­tion whether ex­per­i­ments with bi­o­log­i­cal weapons might be un­der way al­ready. In re­cent weeks, we have heard mys­ti­fy­ing re­ports of the out­break of an­thrax in­fec­tions among heroin users in Scot­land and Ger­many. More than two dozen users in Scot­land and Lon­don have been di­ag­nosed, 12 of whom have died. At least one case has been re­ported in Ger­many.

Might this be a pe­cu­liar anom­aly, or does it por­tend some­thing far more sin­is­ter? As Scot­tish pub­lic health and crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tors search for the source of the con­tam­i­na­tion, we are left to pon­der the prob­a­bil­i­ties. There are two prin­ci­pal sources of con­tam­i­na­tion in il­le­gal drugs. The most ob­vi­ous is the ad­di­tives used to “cut” the drug to in­crease the quan­tity for street sale. While ex­perts will at­test to an amaz­ing ar­ray of sub­stances used, Bacil­lus an­thracis hardly falls within that cat­e­gory. Us­ing large amounts of a pathogen that would place the pro­ducer at risk makes no sense.

The other source of con­tam­i­na­tion is ex­po­sure dur­ing pro­duc­tion. If the source of the heroin is within a re­gion where an­thrax is en­demic, there is a pos­si­bil­ity that cross con­tam­i­na­tion can oc­cur from tents, con­tain­ers or uten­sils made from an­i­mal hides. This leads to sub­se­quent ques­tions: How much of a con­cen­tra­tion has to be present to re­sult in a sig­nif­i­cant con­tam­i­na­tion at the far end of the sup­ply chain? Why have none of the dis­trib­u­tors been af­fected? Why has the con­tam­i­na­tion been so lo­cal­ized?

This leads to a third, more omi­nous pos­si­bil­ity: that the an­thrax con­tam­i­na­tion of heroin is an act of bioter­ror­ism. When we first sug­gested this prospect, col­leagues asked, “But why tar­get heroin users?” Granted, drug abusers ex­ist at the mar­gins of so­ci­ety and of­ten are viewed as lost to the main­stream. Yet they also rep­re­sent the essence of a so­ci­ety viewed as deca­dent and evil, es­pe­cially to a fun­da­men­tal­ist zealot. What bet­ter way to ac­com­plish a di­vine mis­sion than by the very means of the im­moral­ity? As a tac­ti­cal ter­ror­ist strike, this of­fers mul­ti­ple ben­e­fits. The first is a se­cure and highly ef­fi­cient de­liv­ery chan­nel. By its very na­ture, the traf­fick­ing of il­le­gal drugs avoids de­tec­tion by cus­toms, law en­force­ment and health of­fi­cials. This en­sures de­liv­ery of the bi­o­log­i­cal weapon, most likely to large pop­u­la­tion cen­ters.

The pri­mary vic­tims would be those who use drugs and, to a lesser ex­tent, those who dis­trib­ute the drugs — the “push­ers” — vi­o­la­tors of Shariah law who can be pun­ished by death. Secondary vic­tims would in­clude law en­force­ment per­son­nel, health care work­ers and other pub­lic ser­vants such as trash col­lec­tors — all sym­bols and in­stru­men­tal­i­ties of the sys­tem of gov­ern­ment you wish to take down. There also is a pos­si­bil­ity that chance vic­tims will suc­cumb to in­ci­den­tal ex­po­sure, as hap­pened dur­ing the 2001 postal an­thrax at­tacks. The ran­dom­ness of ca­su­al­ties would lead even­tu­ally to wide­spread fear and ap­pre­hen­sion, a pri­mary goal of the ter­ror­ist.

Ab­sent spe­cific facts, it is im­pos­si­ble to say whether this is a plau­si­ble ex­pla­na­tion or sim­ply a bizarre co­in­ci­dence. What is cer­tain is that this event is a symp­tom of our con­tin­u­ing state of un­pre­pared­ness for a well-planned and -ex­e­cuted bioter­ror at­tack. The wake-up calls have been many. Al Qaeda has stated its in­tent to ob­tain and em­ploy bi­o­log­i­cal weapons. The na­tional in­tel­li­gence lead­er­ship’s Feb. 2 state­ment that an at­tempted at­tack on the United States is a cer­tainty within the next six months is a sec­ond alarm. Can the dan­ger be any clearer? The call for im­me­di­ate and de­fin­i­tive action is dead right. Fail­ure in this re­gard could be dead wrong, with the em­pha­sis on “dead.”

Don­ald A. Don­ahue Jr. is ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Health Pol­icy & Pre­pared­ness at the Po­tomac In­sti­tute for Pol­icy Stud­ies. Dr. Stephen Cunnion is the cen­ter’s med­i­cal di­rec­tor.

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