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Biological and Chemical Warfare Q and A
ABC News, Sep. 24, 2001
Now that terrorists have demonstrated they're capable of carrying out unthinkable attacks of extreme devastation, some believe the United States should be on higher alert for a biological or chemical attack.
ABCNEWS.com talked to several experts to learn about these weapons, the preparedness of the United States for such attacks and possible defenses against them, [...]
Most agree that while a biological or chemical attack could be devastating in theory, the logistical challenges of developing effective agents and then dispersing them makes it less likely a terrorist could carry out a successful widespread assault.
Q: Would a chemical or biological attack be more deadly?
A: If cultured well, a biological weapon would have a more devastating impact since people infected with a biological agent can spread the disease for months and over a broad geographical region. One person infected with smallpox, for example, could pass along the disease to 20 or 30 more individuals. In this way the disease could spread broadly and rapidly. A chemical weapon would only affect people who are near the place of its release and the chemical would dissipate with time.
Q: How easy would it be for a terrorist to launch a biological attack?
A: Experts say it remains very difficult to transform a deadly virus or bacterium into a weapon that can be effectively dispersed. A bomb carrying a biological agent could likely destroy the germ as it explodes. Dispersing the agents with aerosols is challenging because biomaterials are often wet and can clog sprayers. The Aum Shinrikyo cult, which released the nerve gas sarin in the Tokyo subway system in 1995, killing 12 people, repeatedly tried to produce and disseminate agents, including anthrax, but failed each time.
Q: What biological weapons pose the biggest threat?
A: Right now, scientists are most concerned about smallpox and anthrax. Both are bacteria that can spread through the air in a powder and cause swift, deadly diseases. Smallpox could be even more lethal because it's easily spread from one person to another. Also worrisome are the bubonic plague, botulism, tularemia and ebola.
Q: Is the United States prepared for a biological attack?
A: Most experts say the United States is not adequately prepared.
There is also the danger that terrorists could develop new strains of smallpox and anthrax. The time required to develop and establish a new vaccine is estimated to be about 36 months.
Rapid detection of a disease outbreak also remains a problem since many doctors have not been trained in how to recognize early symptoms of scourges like anthrax and smallpox.
Some argue that emergency medical facilities are insufficient to handle a widespread attack.
Q: What countries or terrorist groups are developing these biological weapons?
A: The United States and the former Soviet Union had biological weaponry programs in place for decades and both have stockpiles of deadly germs. Although a global treaty in 1972 bans such weapons, scientists in both countries continue to research biological weapons to better understand the agents for defense purposes.
Iraq admitted to the United Nations in 1995 that it had loaded anthrax spores into warheads during the Gulf War. Osama bin Laden has expressed interest in deadly germs and recent reports say satellite photos have revealed dead animals at a terrorist training camp in eastern Afganistan operated by bin Laden. Some speculate the animals were killed by a chemical or biological agent.
Q: Have biological weapons been used before?
More recently, the only known successful use of biological weapons in the United States was by the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh cult in 1984. The group contaminated salad bars in 10 restaurants in The Dalles, Ore., with Salmonella Typhimurium, causing several hundred people to become ill.
Q: What chemical weapons pose the biggest threat?
A: Sarin, a chemical nerve agent developed by Nazi Germany during the 1930s, poses a large threat because it is fairly easy to manufacture. A thimble-sized portion of a nerve toxin like sarin or tabun (also developed by Nazi Germany) can kill a person in minutes, a few particles can produce death in 24 hours. There is also concern that terrorists might use ricin, a natural toxin derived from the castor bean. And terrorists could adapt common industrial chemicals such as chlorine and hydrogen chloride to be used as chemical weapons.
Q: How easy would it be for a terrorist to launch a chemical attack?
A: Because they're relatively easy and inexpensive to manufacture, chemical weapons have long been considered "the poor man's atomic bomb." One group of experts has estimated the cost of killing people using chemical weapons would be about $600 per square kilometer, compared with $2,000 per square kilometer using conventional weapons. Chemical weapons could be dispersed from a crop dusting plane, from aerosols, or by distributing the chemical in water supplies.
Q: Is the United States prepared for a chemical attack?
A: Most experts believe the United States is adequately prepared for a chemical attack since such attacks can usually only target a limited area. Appropriate gas masks can protect a person from breathing in a deadly chemical and protective clothing can prevent exposure through the skin.
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