RELIVING THE PAST

WHAT WILL IT BE NEXT?

The experts see little chance of bacterial or chemical terrorism, but stores can’t keep protective gear in stock

NICOLE JOHNSTON October 15 2001
RELIVING THE PAST

WHAT WILL IT BE NEXT?

The experts see little chance of bacterial or chemical terrorism, but stores can’t keep protective gear in stock

NICOLE JOHNSTON October 15 2001

WHAT WILL IT BE NEXT?

The experts see little chance of bacterial or chemical terrorism, but stores can’t keep protective gear in stock

NICOLE JOHNSTON

Westley Baker has his work cut out for him. As owner of Westley Military Surplus in New Westminster, B.C., he’s overwhelmed with customers, half of them Americans, shopping for survival gear in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Before the weekend strikes against terrorist targets in Afghanistan, he’d sold out of gas masks twice, had just six left from a re-order of 45 and was awaiting another shipment. Customers have left his store with chemical suits, water purification tablets, survival gear—even $1,400 night-vision goggles. His most unusual request? “Gas masks for dogs and cats.” Nearby in Surrey, survival gear is in hot demand at the Urban Military Store. “I have 100 orders for gas masks on my wait list,” says sales clerk Glen Levy. “Some guy even wanted a feed tube so he could eat with his mask on.” While the business is welcome in surplus stores across the continent, Levy can’t help reaching an unsettling conclusion: “The paranoia is on.”

It’s a sentiment echoed among public health officials on both sides of the border, even as they boost their preparedness to cope with a biological or chemical threat. “Were all grappling with these issues,” says Mike Theilmann, director of the counterterrorism division of the federal solicitor general’s department. But he urges the public to keep things in perspective. “The Canadian Security Intelligence Service,” says Theilmann, “feels there is no specific chemical or biological threat against Canada, and that the overall threat is low.”

In New York City, authorities express concern that citizens are stockpiling the antibiotic ciprofloxacin as a protection against a feared bacterial terrorism attack. “Hoarding of antibiotics is just what we don’t want to see,” says Ronald Atlas, chairman of the American Society for Microbiology’s task force on biological weapons defence.

If people start medicating themselves, he anticipates an outbreak of allergic reactions, wrong dosages and the further spread of antibiotic-resistant bacte ria. “There are potentially more adverse effects because of the misuse of antibiotics,” warns Atlas, “than from an actual bioterrorist threat.”

Still, people worry. In light of the attacks, statements from intelligence agencies that terrorist Osama bin Laden has considered ways of distributing toxins are unsettling. The latest horrors have exacerbated fears that spread after revelations in the ’80s that Iraq was using chemical weapons on Iranian soldiers and its own ethnic minorities. In 1992, then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin revealed that the Soviets had been developing biological weapons.

From the shelves at Westley Military Surplus

Canadian army gas mask

British army

chemical suit

The threat of chemical warfare hit home at the civilian level in 1995 when members of Japan’s Aum Shinrikyo religious cult released the nerve gas sarin in the Tokyo subway, killing 12 people The same cult also tried to spread terror biochemically by releasing potentially fatal anthrax and botulinum toxin on several occasions, but was unable to deliver them in an effective form. While Canada has been spared such horrors at home, members of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh cult contaminated salad bars with salmonella in Oregon restaurants in 1984, causing no deaths but making 751 people ill.

So it can happen, and civilian defence agencies are scrambling to get the right resources in place. An attack could conceivably come in many forms. Biowarfare, for instance, differs disconcertingly from other kinds of attacks in that its effects are not immediately evident. There are no police, firefighters and ambulances rushing to the scene. Instead, it operates invisibly until the first victims seek help from physicians, likely at different sites. Authorities may not even recognize that an attack has taken place until a trend begins to emerge, possibly many days after an assault.

At that point, the gas masks, chemical suits and antibiotics that are flying off the shelves these days would have little to offer. “Protection is not at the level of the individual,” says Atlas. “It is at the level of government, the public health system and trained physicians.” If the attack has been effective, casualties could range from thousands to millions and greatly exceed available hospital beds and medical supplies. Fortunately, manufacturing biological weapons is no easy feat. Getting the organisms isn’t the problem—they’re generally found in nature. Crafting them into actual weapons, however, poses many challenges.

The big threat is smallpox. Because it is infectious, and because our bodies no longer have a defence against it, it could spread uncontrollably if established in just one person. Declared to have been eradicated as an infectious disease by the World Health Organization in 1980, smallpox exists in stocks in the U.S. and Russia. But there is suspicion, says Atlas, that Iraq and North Korea are harbouring clandestine stocks. U.S. authorities have roughly 15 million doses of vaccine available, and plan to produce more. If the disease gets established, a global smallpox vaccination program is one possible defence—at a projected cost of $450 billion. On the downside, many children and people with weakened immune systems could die from the vaccine itself.

A lesser threat is anthrax, an infectious disease that can be transmitted to people from cattle and sheep. In their dried form, anthrax spores can survive for long periods, but the disease doesn’t spread from person to person. Symptoms generally don’t appear for two days to a week after exposure, at which point antibiotics are not very effective. However, John Collier, a biochemist at Harvard medical school in Boston, and his colleagues have discovered a molecule and a protein that can stop the anthrax bacterium’s deadly toxin in its tracks. The protein also appears to double as a vaccine, Collier says, and the U.S. military has expressed interest since the trade centre attacks.

Another potential avenue for terrorists— contaminating municipal water supplies —is even less likely to be successful. Because of the dilution factor, anyone trying to attack a population through its taps would need enormous quantities of an agent. Then it would have to survive chlorination and filtration systems. As for nerve agents and other toxins, their instability makes them unlikely weapons in a large-scale attack.

But who thought a terror attack using commercial airliners was likely before Sept. 11 ? It’s a whole new world for defence specialists, captured in a new vocabulary. “No country in the Western world,” says Theilmann, “is ready for a mass-casualty CBRN attack.”That’s chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear to the layman. However minimal the threat, the solicitor general’s department has had a program under way since 1997 to familiarize emergency personnel across Canada with a national counterterrorism plan.

The goal is to co-ordinate response strategy at all levels of the community and government. “The Sept. 11 attack just underlined the importance of the work we’re doing on this frontier,” says Theilmann, who met with emergency staff in Regina last week. By the first week of November, he and colleagues will have reviewed plans with fire, police and ambulance personnel, physicians, nurses, public-health officials and other emergency workers in every province. At the same time, Canadian and U.S. officials meet periodically to discuss emergency preparedness. They are operating under 1999 guidelines ensuring cooperation in the event of a CBRN incident on either side of the border.

At the planning level, opinions are divided as to how openly a subject as sensitive as bioterrorism should be discussed. Health Canada officials declined Macleans requests for an interview on the topic. Some experts argue that talking about bioterrorism only gives some people ideas. But Stephen S. Morse, a virologist at Columbia University and director of the Center for Public Health Preparedness in New York, says the mystique surrounding bioterrorism is what triggers widespread fear. “Speculation is far more dangerous,” reasons Morse. “We aren’t telling terrorists what they don’t already know or won’t soon figure out. We must do what we can to demystify these threats and put them into perspective.” E3