Scrub typhus, 1965, North East India.
Bubonic and pneumonic plague, 1994, Beed and Surat.
Dengue hemorrhagic fever, 1996, Delhi.
Anthrax, 1999, Midnapore.
Mystery ‘encephalitis’, 2001, Siliguri.
All seemingly isolated events in the dismal health history of the country.
Or all diabolically plotted germ attacks to kill thousands of Indians and distract and disturb the Government of India?
Fantasy? Not quite, if some Indian experts on Microbiology like Kamal Datta and Colonel S Nagendra are to be believed. They have even gone on record in journals like the British Medical Journal stating these doubts.
Such flights of fancy do not seem far-fetched in the chilling world of Bioterrorism, the rapidly growing science where the germs of mass destruction could be easily accessible to those who would happily use an A-bomb if they could get their hands on one. In fact, biological weapons are called the ‘Poor Man’s Atom bomb’.
Though a future threat to mankind, bioterror has old historic roots.
In the Crimean War (1346), the Tartars besieging the town of Caffa suffered from an outbreak of plague. They turned this disaster into war weapon; with catapults, they flung the corpses of the dead into the city of Caffa. The defenders abandoned the city when plague broke out. Their westward migration resulted in the spread of plague to Italy, the harbinger of the Black Death, which killed one third of Europe’s masses.
Much later, in 1763, the English overcame hostile native American tribes in Ohio by distributing the blankets of patients affected by small pox. The resulting epidemic killed most of the tribes.
More recently, the Unit 731 of the Japanese Army launched plague and anthrax bombs on Chinese civilians during World War II, with untold casualties.
In fact, this unit’s germ warfare research was the foundation of the American germ warfare research that is now driving global counter terrorism strategies.
Closer home (India), the first bio-crime occurred in 1933, when Binayendra Chandra Pandey murdered his brother by using Pasteurella pestis, the plague bacterium as was then called, stolen from Calcutta’s Pasteur Institute. Pandey used a pin loaded with the bacteria to prick the victim. He was sentenced to kalapani.
THE MODERN THREAT:
It is no secret that terror groups like Al Qaida have been trying to acquire biological weapons. Two years before 9/11 happened, Al Qaida was working in Afghanistan on a secret bio weapon called ‘Agent X’, which was probably anthrax, according to unclassified US documents.
Even before Al Qaida, cult groups like Aum in Japan and the Rajneeshites in Oregon have used chemicals to kill people.
The anthrax letter attacks in the US in October 2001 killed five people, triggering a massive alarm in the security agencies. Extensive funding and research has been ongoing since then, with the Federal Government trying to find ways to prevent and manage a massive germ attack. Dark Winter was launched in 2001. It was a codename for a simulated exercise in which a localized smallpox attack was launched on Oklahoma City, with the National Security Council trying to control the spreading virus. The dismaying results of Dark Winter convinced the US Government that the country would be helpless in preventing a mammoth catastrophe in the face of a germ attack. The lessons learnt were that not only would there be massive loss of life, but the governmental, social and medical infrastructure would be utterly incapable of managing the situation.
Today, five years after Dark Winter, experts are convinced that even that scenario could be too rosy. An attack with unconventional super-viruses, for example, would render all vaccination and treatment methods ineffective.
The result of such scientific assessment and experimentation has been the BioShield initiative of President Bush, which is a $5.6 billion program to develop new vaccines and drugs to fight this evil knowledge.
There are several ways a terror outfit could target civilians.
Using germs, diseases like anthrax, plague, tularemia, small pox, among others, could be spread to susceptible populations.Chemicals like Botulinum toxin (Botox), ricin, and nerve poisons like soman could be used. Dirty bombs using Cesium, Thallium, etc. could cause a lethal radiation hazard and kill people. There are other ways for mass deaths to be caused, like contamination of water supplies, poisoning food stores, poisoning cattle, etc. All these are known. What is alarming the security world is the result of new knowledge on this subject.
TERROR’S NEW BIOLOGICAL FACE:
In 2002, a group of scientists from the State University of New York led by Eckard Wimmer built a functioning poliovirus from small DNA molecules called oligonucleotides that were purchased over the Internet. In only two more years, the group could build the genome (genetic skeleton) of the more complex smallpox virus. Microbiologists consider these developments to be of staggering importance. Man has artificially created a deadly virus out of chemicals purchased online for a little money, using genetic sequences from Internet sources! This is potentially easy for the smart, net-savvy terrorist.
However, the numero uno among terror bugs is not an exotic virus. “The top three threats, in fact, are anthrax, anthrax, anthrax,” says Dr. Gerald Parker, a senior US health agency official. It is the hardiest germ in the planet, it is easily procured and cheaply grown, is highly lethal in small doses (a millionth of a gram can kill a man), and it cannot be detected.
Small pox is another biowar agent, but only a few countries have access to the stocks, so it is not really expected to go into the hands of terrorists.
What is going to be more effective for the terrorist is innovative delivery systems of conventional bioterror agents. In an article on the subject in the Indian Journal of Medical Microbiology, a team of doctors from the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Sciences, Rohtak, has listed some of the mechanisms. For example, a car could roam around in a city emitting a germ aerosol through a fake tailpipe. Suitcases, backpacks, books, letters, umbrellas and remote control devices are some of the delivery methods listed.
Robotic delivery is also possible. Small robots looking like rocks or wood could be programmed to act at a given time to release Biological Weapon (BW) agents or even stay underground for a long time. Solar power may allow these devices to be functional for a long time.
Another technique, a nightmare for bioterror experts, is the use of “suicide coughers” who have got self-inoculated with lethal strains of anthrax and smallpox and go into public gatherings to spread the diseases, causing mass fatalities.
The phenomenal progress of genetic engineering technology has spurred the terror machine on in its mission to wreak biological havoc. Sergei Popov, formerly of the Russian Biopreparat (the fabled germ warfare research division), was the first scientist to create a bioweapon. According to Ken Alibek, a former head of Biopreparat and author of the book Biohazard, “Popov inoculated into a pneumonia bug, Legionella pneumophila mammalian DNA that expressed fragments of myelin protein (the insulation for our nerves). In the tests, the animals that were injected with the recombinant (engineered) Legionella developed mild transient pneumonia, but the myelin protein fragments stimulated a massive immune response that led to brain damage and paralysis. The mortality rate was almost 100 percent.”
Recently, Popov has talked about an experiment in synthetic biology that fuses plague and Ebola virus. The scientific premise of this Soviet research is to hide a deadly virus particle inside the genome of a more innocuous bacterium.
In this case, infection in the test subject would result in plague like symptoms. Once the treatment (usually tetracycline) for the plague is given, the virus is expressed fully. It is feared that the resultant walking ‘Ebola bombs’ could devastate populations. Ebola, if you didn’t know, has an almost cent percent mortality in man.
If you think such tech ability is out of the reach of terrorists because of the expenses, hold on! Bioterrorists can splice agents like Interleukin 4 (IL-4) into chicken pox viruses using the Internet to order the agent from DNA Biotech companies, buy machines like a centrifuge, an incubator and a transfection kit from Bay for a few thousand dollars. With less than $10,000, a terrorist can assemble a sophisticated genetically engineered bioweapon that can overwhelm any country’s defenses. The future is threatening to become the era of the Basement Biotech.
As amazing is scientists’ ability to use bacteria as vehicles for delivering drugs that affect the brain, like serotonin, endorphins and dopamine. Mathew Meselson, Harvard University Professor of Molecular Biology, confirms, “it is possible to launch biochemical weapons that can cause schizophrenia or passivity in an entire population.”
THE SCIENCE OF COUNTER-TERRORISM:
In the US, a vast network of counter-terror organizations with acronyms like DARPA, FDA, NBACC, and CDC have been attempting a concerted strategy to prepare for a biological Doomsday. The strategies involve prevention of an attack, detecting bioweapons, and immediate and late counter measures in the event of a BW attack.
At a practical level, the US Government is stockpiling antibiotics, vaccines and chemical disinfectants.
Apart from the very new automated biosensors (gadgets that can automatically detect the presence of BW agents), some imaginative proposals have come up to detect the normally undetectable pathogens:
1. Researchers have working on tiny electronic chips that would contain live nerve cells that would warn of the presence of bacterial toxins.
2. Fiberoptic tubes or CD- Roms lined with antibodies coupled to light-emitting molecules could help in identification of anthrax, botulinum, ricin, etc.
3. Recently, plants are being genetically engineered such that they would change from their normal green color in presence of certain chemical or biological agents. Placed in public spaces and water bodies, the change of color of these so-called GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) sentinels could be detected by overhead satellites, triggering an alarm.
4. A software called KARNAC uses the same kind of information available to the FBI and detects a pattern of purchases, movements and claims to be able to predict an attack.
4. A web-based network called eLEXNET (Electronic Laboratory Exchange Network) coordinates between laboratories and food agencies to look out for BW attacks on food supplies.
In the event of an outbreak, a fast-track response system is being put in place. Central to this are twelve ‘push-packs’ that are located in certain parts of the country. Each push-pack contains a variety of drugs, chemicals and vaccines that can be used for millions of people, transportable anywhere within 12 hours.
These and other innovations are the fruit of radical work in the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the agency that first conceived the Internet as part of a project. DARPA is actively working on development of a new class of kill-all antibiotics that could counter the effects of Multi-Drug Resistant (MDR) bacteria that terrorists could use, including Tularemia and Anthrax.
Development is occurring at multiple levels. Ravi S. Kane and a group of investigators have developed an anthrax anti-toxin in a project funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “If the effectiveness of anthrax inhibitors designed in this fashion is confirmed by additional testing, they could one day be important adjuncts to standard antibiotic therapy for the treatment of inhalation anthrax,” says NIAID Director Anthony S. Fauci, M.D.
THE INDIAN SITUATION:
Bioterror formally visited India in 2001 when Chhagan Bhujbal, Maharashtra’s Deputy Chief Minister, received an anthrax-laden envelope. Since then, the Department of Defence, through its arm called the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has been working on bioterrorism countermeasures. Friendly Pakistan has even alleged that India has developed chemical and bio-weapons and has stockpiled them in neighboring countries. Its Information and Broadcasting Minister, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed went so far as to say in 2003 that “India is a fit case for pre-emptive strikes” for this reason alone.
Indian companies NEC Engineers and Protech Consultants have been blacklisted by the US Government for supplying BW agents to Iraq in 2002-2003. The take home lesson in this is that both the public and the private sectors have covert capabilities to work on BW agents.
According to Dr. Venkat Rao of the India Forum at George Mason University, “While the USA is in a league of its own along with Israel in bio-preparedness, it has got some help from India. This country has huge stocks of Ciprofloxacin and could deliver 20 million tablets in the event of an anthrax attack”. Not only that, India is one of few countries with an anthrax vaccine. Says Rajesh Jain, a senior official of Panacea Biotech, the Indian manufacturer of the vaccine “The vaccine is undergoing Phase 2 trials”, and should be in the market in the near future. Incidentally, the anthrax vaccine development program in the BioShield project of the US is in a raging controversy, with ringing criticisms all around about the ineffectual nature of the vaccine and its parent company, VaxGen.
Some movement has been made. The DRDO has developed a Mobile Decontamination Unit. The DRDO also developed in 2003 an antidote for sulphur-mustard gas called DRDE-07. The agency has also been reported to have made underground bunkers near the Pakistan border for the armed forces in the event of a biological or nuclear weapons attack. It has also designed bunkers for MPs to be protected in such a catastrophe. What about measures for the population?
India has four battalions trained to contain a WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) attack in the major cities. In terms of preventing and restricting the fallout of a BW attack, India “needs a lot of R&D, awareness and preparedness”, says C Kameshwar Rao of Bangalore-based Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education. Even basic emergency medicine services are lacking at the best of times!
Dr. Sharad Chauhan, DIG, Punjab Police Academy and author of the book ‘Biological Weapons’, lists the lacunae in the Indian counter terrorism strategy:
“Early detection is not possible because of the lack of infrastructure. Law enforcement officers may not even know of the concept of germs, leave alone bioterror. Automated biosensors will not work in India because the wide prevalence of the germs here would result in a constant state of alarm. There is also a lack of accredited labs that could detect germ strains. Without detection, how can you quarantine a population affected by a germ attack of plague?”
Scientist Sagar Galwankar, Co- founder of The Society for Emergency Medicine sarcastically remarks, “With an amalgamation of disease in the country like AIDS, malaria, etc., Indian researchers are taking the initiative to play an alternate role of bio-defense leaders, which is extremely commendable!”
According to Galwankar, the endemic diseases in India constitute a far greater and present danger: “India is now facing the epidemic of MDR-TB (Multi Drug Resistant Tuberculosis), considered in the U.S. as a category C bio-weapon. It would not be a surprise to read future news headlines claiming that Indian MDR-TB crisis is a biological attack from an external source!”
It is likely that the biological terror attack in India, if it occurs, will not be from a fancy, genetically engineered chimeric virus. According to Government sources ricin, a toxic agent from the beans of the common castor plant, Ricinus communis, is the likely agent for the Al Qaida in India.
However, Chauhan differs, “It is more likely that terrorists will target animals with diseases like foot-and-mouth to cause economic devastation. Ricin is good for assassination of individuals, not really for mass murder. Botulinum is more likely the agent of choice.”
All said and done, in the wake of a rapidly evolving evil, Indians are sitting ducks for a bio-disaster of Biblical proportions, with its gaping infrastructural lackings lying exposed to the whole world.