Bioterrorism Risk Is Real, but Safeguards Are Falling Into Place
"I think it's very real, I think there's very little in the way of disagreement that it's before us; it's a reality, it's a real threat. I would say generally, the feeling is that the probability that any of the very serious weapons are going to be used is small, but if they are used the results could be catastrophic. Are we worried? Yes, I think we've got cause to be," Henderson says.
Jonathan Tucker, PhD, is a Robert Wesson Fellow at Stanford University and is writing a book on smallpox. He formerly directed the Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Project at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, in California. Tucker tells WebMD, "[I tend] to be less alarmist than most, I think because [my colleagues and I] really have been looking at the data rather than just speculating in a vacuum."
Tucker has written that only one U.S. fatality can be linked to a bioterrorist act, and that involves the use of a cyanide-tipped bullet in 1973 by the Symbionese Liberation Army, the group responsible for kidnapping newspaper heiress Patty Hearst in 1974. He also says that the apparent ease with which a harmful organism could be used for mass murder is overplayed.
"The ease with which terrorists could both produce and weaponize biological agents has been vastly exaggerated in the popular press. There are a whole series of hurdles that would have to be overcome. ... There has to be the motivation to inflict mass casualties. There has to be the organizational structure that is able to resist infiltration and premature arrest, and then there has to be the technical capability to actually deliver the agent," Tucker tells WebMD.
He says that the subject has been overly politicized, leading to somewhat of a money grab by sometimes unwarranted sources. "I'm not saying that the government should not prepare or plan for this. It's a very unlikely possibility, but if it were to happen it would be devastating, so there needs to be an appropriate level of preparation," Tucker says. "I think the threat has been exaggerated, perhaps for political reasons."
Because a bioterrorist attack hasn't happened yet of course doesn't mean that it can't, according to Henderson. He tells WebMD, "The face of terrorism has changed. I think we were looking before primarily at groups wanting to make a statement ... but there was a restraint for many of them, in the sense of not wanting to get too extreme for the fear of alienating supporters. ... What we've seen now is [people such as] Osama Bin Laden and Aum Shinrikyo, whose clear intent is to kill as many people as they possibly can."