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A Virus-Fed Doomsday

'Bio-Armageddon' is a possibility if U.S. hits Hussein.

October 10, 2002|SCOTT P. LAYNE and MICHAEL H. SOMMER | Scott P. Layne is an associate professor of epidemiology at the UCLA School of Public Health. Michael H. Sommer is a visiting scholar at the Institute of Governmental Studies, UC Berkeley, and a visiting fellow at Yale University.

The debate among the nation's politicians and the advice they're receiving from intelligence experts should not focus exclusively on diplomacy versus preemptive military action against Saddam Hussein. Instead, there is one nightmarish outcome--the so-called bio-Armageddon scenario--that is of immediate concern.

It goes like this: We go in to take out Hussein, and his obedient henchmen pull a "doomsday" switch, releasing contagious biological agents for which there is no vaccine and no cure. Not only are hundreds of thousands of American troops wiped out but, if Hussein wishes to die a martyr's death, the virulent agents are released to spread around the world and wipe out half of mankind.

Even mentioning this subject may seem like scaremongering, but it's not. In today's dicey world, this horrific possibility is a biological, military and political fact of life--or death--that cannot be dismissed out of hand.

How seriously has the bio-Armageddon scenario been weighed in councils of war? An Oct. 7 letter from CIA Director George Tenet to Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), chairman of the Intelligence Committee, stated that a cornered Hussein might use "his last chance to exact vengeance by taking a large number of victims with him."

It costs about $1 million to kill one person with a nuclear weapon, about $1,000 to kill one person with a chemical weapon and about $1 to kill one person with a biological weapon. Low cost alone may dictate that current and future terrorists will opt for the $1 biological killers.

Last year, a bombshell of a scientific paper, published in the Journal of Virology, revealed that a bioengineered form of mousepox--a close cousin of smallpox--was vaccine-resistant and 100% lethal. It showed that simply inserting one immune-inhibiting gene into mousepox was all it took.

Is it conceivable that Hussein's well-trained scientists, who crave to please their boss at any cost, have not read this paper and applied its findings to smallpox?

This year, another stunning paper in the research journal Science described the complete synthesis of the poliovirus genome in the test tube. This feat of bioengineering pointed out that deadly viruses, such as smallpox, can be resurrected in the test tube. No seed germs are required, as previously thought, just genetic sequences, training in molecular biology at the master's-in-science level and a few years of laboratory work.

It's hard to underestimate or sugarcoat these scientific papers. They offer a blueprint for creating vaccine-resistant and highly lethal viruses that could, for example, render the current smallpox vaccine stockpile and the U.S. government's emergency vaccination program absolutely useless. This biological genie may pose a far greater threat than 1,000 atomic bombs.

It's no longer hypothetical to bioengineer such an agent. And less than $1 million would be required to create deadly and contagious agents.

In the wrong hands, a bioengineered virus could be bottled and used as an insurance policy against invasion and overthrow. And, if unleashed, it could change the very fabric of remaining modern civilization. At a minimum, too many people might be stricken to continue to operate oil refineries, power plants, airlines and communications.

A completely new appraisal and posture are needed to deal with these threats.

First, the U.S. needs to train and place more intelligence agents knowledgeable in this type of warfare throughout the world, because the work taking place in a secret offensive biological weapons program cannot be monitored from airplanes or satellites. It must be spied on firsthand.

Building our biological human intelligence capabilities will take years. It will require the scientific, law enforcement and national security communities to finally work together, which they have shown little inclination to do.

Second, we need to build a high-speed/high-volume infectious disease laboratory and information processing system that links the molecular fingerprints of biological agents to their sources worldwide.

Such a system would provide comprehensive and rapid analyses of biological agents and, when every moment counts, it could help to save countless lives after an attack--both at home and abroad.

If we had such a laboratory and biological sample collection program working, we could test for the combined signatures of pox viruses and virus-altering proteins. If, for example, the two were found to reside in the wrong hands or places, we could take preemptive actions.

Here's the bottom line: Bio-Armageddon and biological blackmail cannot continue to remain as realistic options for terrorists.

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