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Monday, 24 September, 2001, 16:23 GMT 17:23 UK
Q&A: The threat from bio-terrorism
Graphic BBC
Much has been said in recent days about the threat posed by terror groups using biological and chemical warfare agents on the UK population. But how real is this danger?

BBC News Online asked Dr Simon Whitby, an expert on biological and toxin weapons control, if people really should be worried about such attacks.

What is the possibility of a biological, or indeed chemical, attack?

There are precedents to look at. In 1995, the AUM Shinrikyo sect successfully released sarin - a chemical agent - in the Tokyo subway and killed 12 people and injured several thousand more. So, a chemical attack is certainly conceivable. With regard to biological agents, the situation is generally regarded to be slightly different because any group would have to overcome some fairly fundamental scientific and technology hurdles before they could use their weapon.


The moral restraint against causing mass casualties has been broken

First you would need to obtain a virulent strain of a suitable organism - many people think of anthrax. You then have to be able to produce significant quantities. You would also need to develop a mechanism to disperse this strain of the organism in sufficient quantities in an aerosolised cloud of lung-retention-sized particles.

Experts caution that this is probably beyond the scope of terrorist organisations. That said, the British did manage to develop an anthrax weapon in the 1940s, and with today's technology and the resources of a man like Osama Bin Laden, a terror group might be able to do it.

So, biological attacks, in particular, would be difficult?

It would be quite a big operation - and something that would be quite difficult to hide. You would be putting yourself in grave danger if you didn't have adequate safety measures in place. So, you would have to have a fairly secure, bio-safety-level facility in order to do it. But it is conceivable that it could be done.

And further to the scientific and technological hurdles that had made state or sub-state use of biological warfare unlikely was a norm of non-use regarding this form of warfare. However, since 11 September, this norm appears to have been breached. The moral restraint against causing mass casualties has been broken.

What has the-foot-and-mouth outbreak in the UK taught us?

I don't think anyone in the UK thinks foot-and-mouth was a deliberate outbreak, but the fact that it appears to have originated from a single source and that single source originated from the importation of meat products from abroad highlights the vulnerability of our livestock to such a virus. And it should be said that very little has been mentioned about the vulnerability of our food system in general to terror attack.

There are a number of diseases that are naturally occurring that could be used to target crops in the UK, Europe and particularly in the US, where large tracts of land are given over to monocropping, where genetically similar varieties are grown on a large scale. Fungal pathogens can be devastating when they occur naturally, and a great deal of economic instability would arise through their deliberate introduction.

This is an issue that has been raised in the US recently - that an agent could be introduced as an economic weapon rather than to kill people.

Some commentators have said that foot-and-mouth highlighted shortcomings in UK biosecurity

A biological warfare incident in the UK is something that would be dealt with by the local authority emergency planning units. And I have to say there has not been a great deal in the open literature about how they would handle a problem.


If there were to be a deliberate outbreak of disease, I would guess that the NHS would come under a very great deal of strain

I don't think we are as well prepared as we could be for a biological attack on the population. That's borne out by our response to foot-and-mouth. Think also of the impact of a naturally occurring influenza outbreak in the UK during the winter months. The burden that is placed upon the National Health Service is immense. If there were to be a deliberate outbreak of disease, I would guess that the NHS would come under a very great deal of strain.

But as I say, the general view is that most terror groups do not have the technical expertise or resourcing to carry out a biological attack.

Nevertheless, this form of warfare can be made much less likely through a host of overlapping multi-lateral control and prohibition regimes; mechanisms designed to prevent, for example, terrorists from obtaining the means to wage this form of warfare. This includes: reliable intelligence; effective and efficient import and export control mechanisms; developing protective measures such as vaccines, etc.

We also need to strengthen the international legal prohibition against biological warfare through strengthening the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) with a compliance and verification protocol. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the US to think again and give careful re-consideration to putting its full support behind the protocol to the BTWC.

Dr Simon Whitby is a research fellow at Bradford University's Department of Peace Studies. He is attached to the department's Project on Strengthening the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention.


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