Bioterror: What Can Be Done?

Virtually every major technology has been exploited not only for peaceful purposes but also for hostile ones. Must this also happen with biotechnology, which is rapidly becoming a dominant technology of our age? This is a question that comes to mind when reading Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War, a clear and informative account of biological weapons here and abroad by the New York Times reporters Judith Miller, Steven Engelberg, and William Broad.

Germs begins by describing the deliberate contamination in 1984 of salad bars in the small town of The Dalles, Oregon, with Salmonella typhimurium, a common bacterium that attacks the stomach lining and causes cramps and diarrhea. The bacteria were spread by members of a religious cult, who were apparently testing a plan to gain control of local government by keeping other citizens from voting in a coming election. Although they caused no deaths, their criminal actions caused sickness in some 750 people and illustrated a community’s vulnerability to even a relatively minor biological attack. A year passed before federal and state investigators established that the outbreak was not natural, and they were able to do so only because the cult leader himself called for a government investigation. The leader’s personal secretary and the cult’s medical care supervisor were sentenced to the maximum prison penalty of twenty years; they served less than four years and then left the country. Federal law enacted in 1994 raised the maximum penalty for such nonlethal biocrimes to life.

Americans have now experienced a far more sinister form of biological attack: seventeen cases of inhalation and cutaneous anthrax with four people dead and the person or persons responsible still at large. Yet the scale of the recent anthrax attacks was minuscule in comparison with the scale of preparations for continent-wide biological warfare conducted by major countries—notably the United States before President Richard Nixon categorically renounced biological weapons in 1969, and the Soviet Union, which even expanded its program after it was made illegal by the Biological Weapons Convention in 1975.

The advent of industrial-scale microbiology and therefore of industrial-scale biological weaponry was made possible by the proof of the germ theory of disease and the development of methods for growing pure bacterial cultures in the nineteenth century. These are accomplishments for which Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur are celebrated and which underpin the studies of tuberculosis for which Koch was awarded the 1905 Nobel Prize in Medicine. It was Koch who in 1876 described with great clarity the life cycle of the bacterium Bacillus anthracis and completed the proof that it causes the disease that is known in German as Milzbrand (fiery spleen), in French as charbon (because of the blackened scab it makes on the skin), in Russian as Siberskaya yasva (Siberian ulcer), and in English as anthrax (from the Greek for coal).

Anthrax is primarily an affliction of grazing animals. When multiplying in an infected animal, the bacteria are rod-shaped. But anthrax bacteria from the dead or dying animal,…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.