Media contagion: botching the science behind the bioterror headlines

"Never make a chemist angry at you."
--James Dalton Bell, would-be bioterrorist

It's known by many names: bioterrorism, BW, black biology, the poor man's nuke. For anyone who follows the press, it promises to shape the next wave of worldwide terrorism and, perhaps, the next world war. But Dr. Robert Pollack, a Columbia microbiologist, is dissatisfied with the press's handling of the basic science, an essential aspect of these "knowledge in the wrong hands" stories.

"Two days before the New York Times ran its front page article about Larry Wayne Harris and his meek friend," Pollack recounts, "Columbia's press officer received an AP wire which said that two guys were heading for New York City with flasks of anthrax and were planning to drop them in the subway. I said it's not going to happen--it's not possible. Nobody can walk around with flasks of anthrax that are active or sporulating without risking their own infection. In fact, I don't know how they can even grow it without getting infected."

Two days later, Pollack opened the Times and found a story about the arrest of Harris. Beyond the obvious reasons for concern, something else gave Pollack pause. "It said that anthrax is a virus, and I said to myself, jeez, if the Times calls anthrax a virus, then we have a real problem." Pollack points out that anthrax is a bacterial spore, not a virus, and it is this important distinction that makes anthrax a potential weapon. "Anthrax is almost completely indestructible as a spore, and when it opens and germinates it's very, very infectious." He notes that the Times story also failed to discuss known facts about anthrax, including the good news that animals and humans can be vaccinated against it.

Pollack believes that the two most widely ignored dimensions of the Larry Wayne Harris story were Harris's extremist politics and the public health questions raised by the menace of biowar. "The real story was homegrown racial and religious insanity. That part got swept away by the bad biology of the story," says Pollack. "It was the wrong story covered badly. In the first cycle of news stories, it was that anthrax is coming to the subways, not that Americans are thinking of killing other Americans."

But, observes Pollack, the press's other major failing in covering this and related stories has been an inability to recognize the public health issues involved. The Harris story, and concurrent reports about Iraqi plans to crop-dust Israel with anthrax spores, made Pollack realize that without a federal health policy there could be no nationwide response to such threats. "We can't vaccinate kids against polio, so how can we vaccinate people against anthrax? Without national medical care there can be no national response against a medical weapon."

Dr. Matthew Meselson, the Thomas Dudley Cabot Professor of the Natural Sciences at Harvard, is equally critical of the media's performance. "I'd give the press a grade of about C," he says. Meselson, like Pollack, faults the press for repeatedly calling anthrax a virus rather than a bacterium. "But at a more substantive level, you get this kind of mindless repetition that anybody could create these weapons with modest facilities."

"People who say that you can make these weapons in your kitchen just don't understand what's involved," says Meselson. He points out that the U.S. chemical weapons program developed during World War II demanded huge facilities (at sites like Pine Bluff, Ark., Camp Detrick [now Fort Detrick], Md., and Dugway, Utah) and immense amounts of water and electricity. "Then they say, Well, what about Saddam Hussein? He must have done it on the cheap.' Nonsense! If you read the UNSCOM [United Nations Special Commission] reports, there's something like 14 facilities they knew were connected with the program, the biggest of which was Al Hakam, with enormous equipment--fermenters and the like. So as far as we know, he didn't even get all the way there. Maybe some genius has a way of doing it in his garage, but that's not the way anybody's ever tried to do it--including Saddam."

"If anthrax is stirred incorrectly it may clump," notes Meselson, "and if the cells clump you can't make an aerosol weapon. They stick together like glue. Who would have thought of that? And I imagine that there are hundreds of little wrinkles like that. All the nonsense about ease of production ignores these facts."

Kenneth Goldstein, professor emeritus and science journalism specialist at Columbia's School of Journalism, is even less sanguine. "The failure of some major media organizations to put biowar into a reasonable and understandable context should not be surprising," he says. "Their goal is audience and more audience, to surround their precious advertising. They proved that with their treatment of the Clinton sex stories."

Francis Boyle of the University of Illinois School of Law characterizes much reporting on Iraq's biowar capabilities as "deliberate misinformation--in fact, disinformation by the mainstream news media to monger for war against Iraq." Boyle, who authored the Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989, charges that the press omits the fact that "95 percent or more of Iraq's biological weapons capability has been destroyed." He cites Dr. Raymond Zilinskas, a former UNSCOM inspector affiliated with the Center for Public Issues in Biotechnology at the University of Maryland, who noted in the Baltimore Sun that while the Iraqis manufactured almost 2,000 gallons of anthrax slurry, they filled bombs and warhead with wet rather than dry anthrax. As anthrax doesn't store well, Zilinskas believes that these devices, if still around, would now be filled with "muck" and little more.

Another important dimension of the story--that there were "at least 40 shipments to Iraq during the Reagan administration of weapons and specific biological agents," in Boyle's account--has also been underreported. "The government knew full well that Iraq was going to develop biological weapons for use against Iran. These shipments were in clear violation of the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972," Boyle asserts, leaving readers to their own conclusions about why the press has placed its emphasis elsewhere. -- Gerry O'Sullivan

Related links:

  • Select bibliography on biowar, U.S. Army Military History Institute

  • Biological Weapons Convention News, Federation of American Scientists

  • Special report on bioterrorism (including David E. Kaplan's interview with Larry Wayne Harris), U.S. News, March 2, 1998

  • Jeff Stein, "UN Inspections: Worse than Useless" (interview with weapons inspector David Kay), Salon, March 25, 1998

  • Bruce W. Nelan, "Germ Warfare," Time, Dec. 1, 1997

  • "When a Cult Turns to Germ Warfare," New York Times

  • Anthrax vaccination program for U.S. troops, DoD DefenseLINK

  • Malcolm Ritter, "How Anthrax Kills," Associated Press

  • Larry I. Lutwick, "Bug of the Month: G-Docs and X-Files," Medscape (fictionalized infectious-disease case report, Infect Med 115(3):165-167, 210, 1998)

  • David W. Siegrist, "Advanced Technology to Counter Biological Terrorism," presentation to the International Conference on Threats in the Technological Age, Holon, Israel, March 18, 1998

  • "Real Live Killers: Biological Weapons," The Why Files (student-oriented site), National Institute for Science Education, National Science Foundation

  • Showdown in Iraq story index, USA Today

  • "Experts: U.S. unprepared for bio-terrorists," Reuters (via CNN), April 14, 1998

  • GERRY O'SULLIVAN, Ph.D., is co-author (with Edward S. Herman) of The "Terrorism" Industry: The Experts and Institutions that Shape Our View of Terror (NY: Pantheon, 1990) and editor emeritus of The Humanist. His writing has appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, 21stC, In These Times, and other publications.