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Monday, 1 October, 2001, 13:26 GMT 14:26 UK
How serious a threat is biological warfare?
The World Health Organisation has warned governments to prepare for possible biological or chemical weapons attacks.
In the United States, flights by crop-spraying aircraft are now banned. In New York, stores are reported to have sold out of gas masks.
In 1995 a religious group released the chemical agent sarin in the Tokyo subway, killing 12 people and injuring several thousand more.
Experts say that biological attacks would have to be carried out on such a large scale that they would be difficult to hide, but the possibility cannot be ruled out.
How serious a threat is biological or chemical warfare? How can nations protect themselves against this new terror?
This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.
Phil T, Oman
Although I think the chance of chemical attack is low, I would have had the same view if someone had suggested that terrorists would fly passenger jets into the World Trade Centre. Therefore I think governments should at least educate their populations on the type of weapons there are, possible effects and how best to deal with an attack. Surely forewarned is forearmed.
My father, if he had taken his normal train to work, would have been one of the victims of the Sarin incident.
We should be cautious of dangers lurking around the corner, like we would look for oncoming traffic when crossing a road. But should you attempt to be alert all the time for an unknown threat, you'll end up a nervous wreck!
I think that this has always been a possibility since the 1980s. As the Cold War ended and terrorism grew, chemical and biological warfare was an even bigger possibility. Even a well-placed small nuclear device is possible, especially created from plutonium that was sold on the black market that originated from the former Soviet Union. Our mistake was not looking at the signs that have been obvious for the last 15 years.
As each day goes by it becomes a bit easier to feel that it won't happen, but there is no way on earth you would get me to travel on the Tube now.
I am a serving uniformed metropolitan police officer in London. In the last two years I have personally dealt with about fifty illegal immigrants, coming illegally to the UK. Police instructions are to take no action and to assist them in reaching the alien registration office in Croydon. Most of these people are from the Middle East, Asia or the Balkan region, all of them with personal effects. My concern is simply this - if terrorists wanted to bring chemical or biological weapons into this country they could very easily, and would even be told how to get to central London from their friendly bobby. I just hope that the government take this incident, learn from it and prevent it from ever happening again. I hope they consider tighter border control, identification cards and stronger powers to deal with those responsible.
Tom Burchell, UK
How many more ideas do we need to give these terrorists, don't they have enough of their own already? They watch the media coverage too.
Whilst I believe it is important we prepare ourselves against a possible terrorist attack, I think that the media must cease dramatising this, as it is leading to a wide spread panic. People all over the country are rushing out to buy respirators and NBC suits, which are totally useless unless you are trained in the use of such equipment. It makes me wonder, how long before people start to stockpile food, water and fuel too. Prevention is better than cure but we must put this into perspective and say "what are the chances of a nationwide chemical or biological attack?"
Over reaction? Being one of the many in our cattle-crowded tube carriages who travels along a line which takes in Westminster, St James's, the City of London and the Tower... how confident should one be feeling? Most understandable that the Government has no wish to panic the public but, quite frankly, as I do in other areas of my life, I'd rather have a fair idea of how the game plan is being planned!
Little comfort it is to hear it rated as a 'small' chance that a chemical attack may be made against us. Until 11 September, I would have naively asserted that it would have been virtually 'nil' that what happened in America could have happened. Yes, the logistics involved in a city such as London is incredible, bordering on impossible, nonetheless, as a person who has no wish to be intimidated by terrorism, I'd rather be better informed about contingency plans in the UK than I am presently am.
Blair has declared us to be at war with terrorism. Then I declare that he start to treat us with the intelligence to deal with that.
Richard White, UK
We might as well all just smile happily and let the idiots we insist on voting in do their worst as they inevitably do anyway. My friends, our destiny is in the hands of fools and we are all too mesmerised by all the pretty pictures on that little box in the living room to actually get off our backsides and do anything about it. Do yourself a favour, smash your TV, grow your hair, stop shaving under your arms and let us govern ourselves.
Interestingly it may be possible that terrorists have already employed biological weapons.
Consider the recent foot-and-mouth outbreak in the UK. Could this have been started by Iraqi agents??
The stuff of conspiracy theory you may say, perhaps not. We may find out the truth about this issue in the future.
I don't think there is anything hysterical about musing on the possibilities. No-one thought two planes would raise the WTC until it happened.
The USA has been conducting biological warfare for years with deadly effect. The weapons are disguised as hamburgers.
I think I have to agree with the people who feel caution is the proper approach. We can't entirely rule out a biological threat, yet we need to prepare for the possibility of it happening. Paranoia and civil unrest are two of the greatest weapons terrorists can unleash on us.
What measures has the UK government taken to eradicate the possibility of chemical retaliation on the UK? I believe that the risks are high and that proper measures must be put in place immediately.
No need to panic. The components required to launch a large scale chemical or germ warfare attack are far more difficult to organise than most people imagine. Anthrax is deadly - but it's also a delicate bacillus that is very difficult to store and deliver. Smallpox is virtually unobtainable. Each method is fraught with difficulties. Incidentally, gas masks are of no use whatsoever unless they are configured to deal with the gas that you're expecting - and you'd still need advance notice of its arrival. Chemical contamination of domestic water reservoirs is far more likely than an atmosphere-borne attack and so far as I know, the government screens water supplies for known contaminants as a matter of routine.
Greg Frame, UK
I find it daft that people are going out and buying NBC suits. For a start when the Army use them they have nine seconds to put them on and be fully sealed up! By the time people find out that there has been a chemical attack they would almost certainly have been exposed! The likelihood of an attack like this, as the government says, is very small. How many aircraft are there in this country that are capable of crop spraying? Very few. The best way for someone to launch that kind of attack here would be in water supplies - reservoirs, rivers and so on. Though whether they would need to with some of the states of our water supplies is another story. To be honest if it happens, it happens, there is nothing Mr Smith in the street can do about it. All this worrying is pointless and gets us nowhere. We have scare mongering everywhere, along with lots of patriotic propaganda. Bin Laden isn't likely to strike again for a while. But his best bet would be to keep western democracies off balance with fears like this of a chemical attack. I personally would just carry on my life and not worry about it.
Thomas Johnson, UK
There is a serious threat to the welfare of innocent civilians from biological agents. The civilized world needs to exterminate this threat by any means necessary. Mass destruction weapons do not discriminate and every person whether Muslim, Christian, or Jewish should stand together to eradicate these factions willing to use such weapons.
Do not live in fear, but do not live in ignorance of the biological and chemical warfare threat. There's a middle ground to most issues, and concerning biological and chemical agents the idea is to be adroit as a society, while not living life in a cave.
Ted Hibbert, UK
The use of chemical and biological warfare is a very feasible route for the supporters of Osama bin Laden to take against not only the West, but against all freedom-loving countries. If a handful of terrorists with paper cutters can bring down the World Trader Centre, one can imagine the damage that they can do with such (fairly cheap) weapons of mass destruction as biological potions. All freedom-loving countries should seek to rid the world of terrorism in places like Afghanistan, Chechnya and Kashmir. Only when the terrorists have been eliminated will their dream of a Jihad against the free world be gone forever.
Robert Scurr, United Kingdom
"The only way to prevent such an attack is to issue gas masks nation wide", Mark, UK. You do realise that gas masks alone are useless against 90% of chemical and biological weapons? The security services should do what they can about preventing such attacks. But running around panicking and spending huge amounts of money on equipment that would not protect you anyway (even if you in some way knew an attack was taking place before it was to late) seems to me to be giving the terrorists exactly what they wanted.
I have been watching various news programmes on television. Many of them are very sensationalised and breed paranoia and fear into the general television-watching public. There is definitely a sense of safety and security that has been lost here in the United States, but the media has aided in creating that. Obviously, there is a real threat and we saw that on September 11th. Weapons of any form, used by any side, do not solve or justify what happened in New York and Washington DC. We need to think globally, and not so nationalistically or along political lines. It's too dangerous to do otherwise as we have witnessed in the past and as we are witnessing now.
Derek S, England
Have all you people forgotten about the time Saddam killed a whole village with nerve gas before the Gulf war? Has he not publicly displayed delight at the news of the tragic events in the US? If he and bin Laden got together, they could cause havoc throughout the world. This is their aim. Why shouldn't chemical and biological weapons be used? The threat is real, but there isn't a lot we can do about it. But isn't that the whole point about terrorism? It works.
Now is the time for all of us to be vigilant about suspicious packets, parcels etc - as we have had to be with IRA threats. Our government should also promise to respond appropriately to any attack, e.g. if Bin Laden uses chemicals we should attack a terrorist target with chemical weapons.
I am appalled at Derrick McCabe's suggestion that we should use chemical weapons on Bin Laden if he uses them on us. It's this kind of ignorant "tit for tat" attitude that leads to the escalation of these huge problems in the first place.
Mark R, UK
In as much as we think of appropriate defensive actions against threats posed by biological warfare, we need to consider the financial disability of some countries such as the African countries. Not every country can afford expensive protective materials such as gas masks. I suggest that the UN and the WHO pick the fight against this as a common goal.
There is a treatment for Anthrax. Most of the potential threat agents are not airborne, and do not have a long life-cycle outside a host. This terrorist attack has put the world on alert, nothing and no one is sacred. However, if we let it paralyse us, we will have lost the freedoms we have fought so hard to gain. Live life to the best you can every day.
I think it's ironic that the same country that boycotted treaties on both chemical and biological weapons is now paranoid about them. I think the risk to the USA is minimal; they are more at risk from the huge amount of firearms they've all been buying recently.
Was it not the case that Americans, in their rush to depopulate America of its indigenous population, the Native American, distributed blankets containing the Smallpox virus among the unsuspecting innocent?
Is the crime committed on Sept. 11, 2001 any worse than the crime of using germ warfare in America's successful execution of genocide?
Is it not ironic that this inhuman form of warfare is now America's greatest threat?
The objective of the "terrorists" of the moment is world domination by Islam, not terror itself. The only way to achieve this objective is large-scale and irreparable debilitation of western democracies by extermination of their greatest assets - their people, not their infrastructure. Biological weapons are the tool for this job and we are right to consider this the greatest of present threats to our civilisation. Apologists, appeasers and the apathetic should be made to choose who's side they're on and be interned if they choose wrongly.
James Mansfield, UK
The modern battlefield makes chemical and biological weapons effectively redundant. Such weapons are only of use against large static civilian populations. Up to now it has been thought that a common morality has prevented their use in such circumstances. But the atrocity in the US has shown that large numbers of middle-class and well educated people are willing to organise, spend lots of money and die to perpetrate horrific crimes against innocent civilians. It shows that in the Muslim world at least there is now no moral sanction to prevent the use of chemical and biological weapons against civilians.
Mac thinks that the Muslim world has no morals when it comes to chemical weapons. Need I remind you who invented most, if not all the chemical weapons in the world?
There are 1.2bn Muslims in the world. If Muslims were like the way most of you think we are then do you think the world would be the way it is now?
In reply to Mac's bigotry: Tim McVeigh was not a Muslim.
Biological warfare? I don't think so. These people are not stupid. Bin Laden has continually attacked in short, sharp jabs. The reason being that America will only fight back in small attacks. It is true attacking the WTC is major. But it was only a small area of land: it doesn't provide Bush with the justification to wipe out nations. If Bin Laden had wanted to he could have bombed seven states. But he didn't for this reason. Hence no biological warfare.
Nick Walters, UK
If this is how people are thinking then the terrorists have already won. If we are afraid of biological and nuclear attacks then very soon we will be afraid of our own shadows. The terrorists' aim is to bring about fear in the society they are acting against - which is precisely what is occurring today across the First World.
I will not change my daily routine one little bit because of this. The best way to fight against terrorism is to show them that their attempts to instil fear have failed, by not reacting to what they 'might do'.
To obtain a US visa is a nightmare for us here in India. How come all kinds of shady characters including terrorists manage to get a US Visa?
Indians returning to the US carrying pickles and other ethnic food stuffs are harassed and troubled, but terrorists manage to smuggle in all kinds of stuff! Something is seriously wrong somewhere.
Sascha, NY, USA
To launch an attack you do not need chemical or biological weapons. Merely the perception that you have the means to deliver. Terrorists would only need to release a canister of a coloured, pungent odour in the centre of a major world city and you could guarantee that the fear factor alone would stop tourism and render mass panic in the population.
It may turn out in years to come that the recent foot and mouth outbreaks across the UK could have been introduced deliberately. As the disease apparently "just appeared" here in the UK and the experts are still baffled about its source. These types of outbreaks could so easily mess up a nation's economy.
Coco, Edinburgh, Scotland
Well done the BBC! A scare-mongering media is just what we want. Anyone with any other suggestions for this site of how the 'baddies' might be able to kill us? Or maybe we can just persuade the entire population to stop using the tube, airlines etc. That'll help resolve the situation won't it?
Would blockading a country via sanctions and starving its population be regarded as biological warfare?
People keep repeating that we should prepare for chemical warfare. As a London commuter what is it exactly that they suggest I do?
Jim H, UK
Which are the only countries known to posses Chemical weapons? The USA, Russia and India.
Which countries have the largest nuclear capabilities? The USA and Russia. Which country has used weapons of mass destruction in the past? The USA. Makes you think?
John Chantry, UK
The possibility of a chemical attack is indeed a daunting prospect but let's get this into perspective. We are all being gradually poisoned by our own government's industrial policies. Is this not the reason George Bush has been named 'The Toxic Texan?'
Whilst Porton Down's existence may up to now have been controversial, it is leading the world in providing defensive measures against these types of warfare. We should be grateful for the foresight of successive UK governments to research into defensive possibilities in these areas of warfare.
The US should make it clear that any biological attack would be met with a nuclear response
In reply to Martin from Wales who suggested that a biological attack should be replied to using nuclear weapons. Would he please reply, mentioning exactly who he would nuke?
I am worried that if the US ploughs into making military action then many terrorist groups are likely to try a biological attack. The only way to prevent such an attack is to issue gas masks nationwide. During WW2 if we had not of had gas masks then Hitler would have probably used gas against us.
Harry J Farnill, UK
Fifty terrorists with fifty thermos flasks containing anthrax upwind of fifty major cities in the US would over thirty days kill the majority of the population of the country.
We should refrain from purely sentimental reaction. Our answer should be clear: we have to ban the demons of chemical and biological warfare from the human domain to not tragically render true the saying that you reap what you sow.
Jane Brookes, UK
I am a grandmother. What sort of future are we planning for our children and grandchildren? There is a feeling of fear all around us, there is continuous talk of war in the media and by people in general. How do we protect our children when we are getting so paranoid? I have not heard any talks by professionals on how we, the ordinary, frightened people should deal with our fear and at the same time put on a brave face for the sake of our children
The buying of gasmasks and protective clothing does little more than raise the level of paranoia. I cannot imagine the size and complexity of organizing the production of enough chemical or biological agent, in secret, in another country. The fact that "enemies of the US" have these weapons is also of little significance, how are they going to get them to the US? When paranoia and fear reign, terrorism has won.
Now is the time for all of us to be vigilant about suscpicious packets, parcels etc - as we have had to be with IRA threats. Our government should also promise to respond appropriately to any attack, e.g. if Bin Laden uses chemicals we should attack a terrorist target with chemical weapons.
I fear that, in the UK, the chance of succumbing to vCJD as a result of Government and food industry ineptitude and inaction is hugely greater than that of being affected by any bio-terrorist attack.
Having a perspective on what is worth worrying about and what is not is a life skill that seems to have passed by some of your correspondents.
The threat to individuals anywhere from terrorists is trivially small compared to the dangers of crossing the street. Illness and premature death from the toxins emanating from an affluent lifestyle are much more serious problems than the vague possibility of biochemical attack. Every year millions of people die so that we can sustain a lifestyle that makes us unhealthy, unhappy and, apparently, totally self-obsessed.
Devote your energies to attacking problems that exist and the imaginary ones will go away.
Whether the threat is real or
imagined, no government can
afford to ignore it.
As a former serviceman, I can tell you that there is no way that the civilian population can be protected from chemical and biological weapons. Even if they buy gas masks, without military training , "Naps" (Antidote drugs) and other equipment they would be useless. Sarin, a common nerve agent, will kill through skin absorption. The best way, is for more border controls and the public must accept that the threat is real, therefore some of their freedoms will be restricted. Put the security of the nation on a full war footing. Identify those we suspect of being a risk. Terrorist do not respect the law, therefore they should not expect its formalities or protection. The other way is, we wait until we pile up the dead, then cry foul.
I think the media should not give hyped up knee jerk coverage to a serious topic. People would be better advised to remember their Green Cross code as they are more likely to be the victim of a traffic injury that a Muslim Extremist chemical attack on their way home tonight.
And whoever holds the naive belief that the Geneva Convention and various international treaties against nuclear biological or chemical attacks, are any protection against a terrorist group should put their story books down and wake up to global politics.
The threat of terrorists' use of chemical or biological weapons is not new, but obviously in the light of recent events it's now being taken more seriously (about time too). However, we are at much greater risk of the effects of mass hysteria in response to these stories (remember they're just stories at the moment, and part of the terrorists' aim is to spread panic and confusion).
Saminder Singh Grewal, India
As much as this is an issue that needs to be discussed, has it not occurred to anyone that this is exactly the kind of fear the terrorists hoped to give to the western world? The more we publicly discuss issues like this, and the more tense we become about them, the greater the victory to those who committed these terrible acts.
I we should all sit at home with our loved ones wearing full NBC suits and gas masks. All shops, factories and workplaces should shut down.
All agricultural production should cease immediately so terrorists cannot infiltrate the food supply. Eventually when we've all starved to death in our own homes, the rest of the planet (i.e. animals, insects, fish) which doesn't care about petty religious squabbles can get on with their own lives without human interference.
Ex-member of Biopreparat, USA
People are getting carried away with the 'possible' threat of chemical or biological terrorism. This is being fuelled by an irresponsible media with its alarmist theories. I watch with amusement as people buy up gas masks and NBC suits. Biological agents are invisble and odourless, so unless the terrorists broadcast the fact that they will launch an attack, there is no warning. Also, these people are well aware of the consequences should they be foolish enough to launch a chemical or biological attack, especially on the US. They would face, along with their backers total destruction from the US nuclear arsenal. Stop worrying, it will not happen. Alternatively, move to New Zealand.
The only thing that the NBC suits and gas masks being bought in light of the new threat of chemical and biological agents bring is mental safety. What we should be asking is that if there was such an attack, what contingency plans the local authorities have in place to defend the civilian population. None?
Biological Weapons? They're about as likely as a group of terrorist hijacking four planes in the same morning and causing the death of 5,000 people.
Kay Yates, England
I don't see any point in fearing chemical or biological warfare as the prospect of it has been around for decades. Nor is this the time to panic buy gas masks and protective clothing. The concepts and realities of these two warfare type have at last become clear to people (Americans) and the solutions is to destroy the chemical and biological weapons, and certianly not manufacture more.
We're supposed to have three international agreements regarding biological and chemical warfare. The first is the 1925 Geneva Protocol, prohibiting the use of poisonous or bacteriological weapons. The second is 1972 Biological Weapons Convention that bans all use, development, production and stockpiling of biological and toxic weapons. And the third is the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, which does the same for chemical weapons. It's such a shame that these laws haven't been policed more efficiently. Biological and chemical warfare is probably the scariest form of warfare around. I just pray is doesn't come to that!
Re Andy Stratt's comments:
As far as I'm aware, the Taliban faction and Bin Laden have not signed any such conventions. And, if you check with Russian veterans, you'll find that they don't conform to the Geneva Conventions either.
The most important step is to have the resources in place to respond to a biological or chemical attack. An effective response, especially to biological attacks, would significantly reduce the number of people who would ultimately lose their lives.
In addition, destroying/guarding the current stock of these weapons and better discouraging further research into those weapons should help. With the significant resources required to obtain and effectively use chemical and especially biological weapons, the reduction or elimination of state funding of terrorism seems especially important.
The US should make it clear that any biological attack would be met with a nuclear response
The UK government would be better spending their time and resources providing their population with effective measures to protect themselves from chemo-bio weapons, than with bits of plastic - id cards. Of course, Messrs Blunkett et al will be fine in their bunker when the strike occurs.
Mark , UK
I have the rather uncomfortable feeling that the more we present potential terrorist scenarios, the more likely it is that we see these realised.
I am not saying that terrorists are ignorant of the possibilities but a full discussion of the pros and cons of chemical or biological warfare certainly presents the terrorist with valuable information.
I think we all should prepare for the worse. If the air attacks could happen without anyone knowing, then who knows what Bin Laden can do with chemical weapons.
I was interested to read Carole K's contribution. I sympathise with her point of view. I think it's becoming impossible to tell if we're being paranoid or not!
Carole K, UK
The real danger inherent in biological attack is the ease with which it can be achieved. An aerosol spray within a confined space (such as the underground) can affect a relatively small number, but with a high dosage. An outdoor spray can affect larger numbers but at lower levels and dissipating more rapidly. Contaminated water supplies could also affect a wide group, but again at a low concentration. The types of chemical used, depending on the method of attack, can fit in a small canister and be transported easily. Now, more than ever, do people need to be observant and aware of their surroundings and of suspicious objects.
25 Sep 01 | Americas
24 Sep 01 | Science/Nature
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