Death in a Petri Dish

Three weeks ago, around the time of the Boston bombings, another less publicized attack occurred. Two intercepted letters, meant for President Barack Obama and Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi, were discovered to be laced with ricin, a deadly toxin. This may seem inconsequential in comparison to the explosive bombings, but the use of this chemical as a weapon is a resounding alarm that all officials should take careful note of.

On the surface, the use of bioweapons like ricin may seem to be a contained threat. However, bioterrorism, which includes both the aggressive use of toxins and contagious diseases, is an emerging form of terrorism with the potential for catastrophic damage. Since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, nuclear war has been on the forefront of United States’ thought, allowing bioterrorism to remain off the radar. For this reason, and for its pervasive potential, bioterrorism should be considered the single greatest threat to national security.

Recent examples of bioterrorism are abundant if we choose to open our eyes to them. In 1988, Saddam Hussein used chemical and biological warfare to kill thousands of Iraqi Kurds. In 2001, shortly after 9/11, various government officials received letters containing anthrax. The United States is currently investigating the Assad regime’s use of “chemical weapons” against Syrian rebel fighters. And the ricin in the recently intercepted letters had the potential to inflict serious damage. According to a study conducted by the European Food Safety Authority, 22 micrograms (roughly 1/228 of a dose of aspirin) of pure ricin is enough to kill a human.

Bioterrorism has already arrived, and its time to start asking uncomfortable questions. Are there any hostile groups currently prepared to carry out such an attack? When will a massive attack—a very real possibility—come? To what scale will this attack occur, and will we be able to anticipate it? And, above all, are we prepared?

The possibility of a bio attack is heightened by the fact that engineering a bioweapon is relatively easy—it is conceivable that anyone, with the right materials, could create a weapon with the potential to cause harm. In January 2012, controversy erupted when a group of researchers engineering deadly strains of H5N1, also known as avian flu, published their procedures in the scientific journals “Nature” and “Science.” It was argued that terrorist groups could attempt to recreate the very steps described in the journals.

Additionally, because there are so many labs working with deadly bacteria and so many scientists conducting research into bioweaponry, all it takes is one rogue individual to cause a public health disaster. It is already a challenge to find the source of flu epidemics. Predicting the use of a bioweapon engineered by terrorists outside the country in absolute secrecy is much more difficult.

If a terrorist group got their hands on materials necessary to build a bioweapon, it would be far more difficult to track the group’s progress than, say, Kim Jong-Un’s amassment of enriched uranium, a material under international scrutiny. For instance, how could one monitor the production of ricin, which is naturally found in the castor oil plant?

The inconspicuousness of bioterrorism is not its only danger; it also has the potential to cause severe damage through use of seriously harmful chemicals. Some might assume that bioterrorism only involves common diseases or toxins. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Despite being eradicated in the 1970s, two countries currently maintain known stores of the deadly smallpox virus: the United States and Russia. In addition, there are rumours that others stores exist outside of these heavily guarded laboratories. If stolen, these smallpox samples could cause a major epidemic.

Countries with high population densities and many urban areas , like the United States, are most at risk. A slow-acting virus could infect nearly all of Washington, D.C. before anyone realized the danger. All it takes is one deadly infection for the nation to spiral into complete societal collapse.

Worst of all, bioterrorism attacks a nation’s defenses, not unlike an autoimmune disease. If medical personnel are most endangered by the very patients they care for, how can they cure an entire country? We also must consider the money, personnel, resources and actual treatments necessary to quarantine an attack before it spreads.

This is why we must prepare. We must create new, relevant safety procedures that allow us to quickly identify threatening viruses and bacteria and have the appropriate means to quarantine affected individuals. We must be constantly developing new, better vaccines against pathogens that have any potential to be used as weapons. And, most importantly, we need to start facing the possibility of such a threat.

We cannot continue to ignore the reality of bioterrorism. It’s time that the public understands the severe threat of this 21st century issue, and prepares for the possibilities.

Lily Grossbard is a new Lower from New York, NY.