The demon in the freezer?
Alibek book returns spotlight to bioterror

"Biological weapons combine the potential destructiveness of the atom with relative ease of use and acquisition," says Richard Betts, the Leo A. Shifrin Professor of War and Peace Studies at Columbia.

Betts suggests that the possibility of such unconventional warfare demands an unconventional response or at least a more traditional public health-oriented response than the United States has been willing to muster in the past 20 years. "I recommend that we pay more attention to passive civil defense," he says. "This includes stockpiling of antibiotics and more attention to a wider range of approaches, including education, research, and public health."

But hot zone stories are sexy; preparedness stories are not. Media coverage of biological and chemical warfare and what has come to be called "bioterrorism" has focused largely on the more dramatic -- and least likely -- scenarios, often filtered through the lens of Hollywood-inspired tales of killer viruses run amok.

The press largely overlooks two facts. A chemical attack is far more likely than a biological one either of which, as Brig. Gen. Bruce Lawlor, a counterterrorism specialist with the Department of Defense, told 21stC, remains overwhelmingly less likely than a conventional strike ("Explosives are still the weapon of choice," said Lawlor); and we remain woefully underprepared for what the military calls biological or chemical "events." Progress has occurred since 1998, when President Clinton first announced a $420 million initiative to stockpile antibiotics and vaccines, but not much.

Dr. Ken Alibek is worried about the proliferation of biological weapons and the threat of biological terrorism. He should be. For 17 years Alibek worked for and ultimately directed Biopreparat, the Soviet Union's biological weapons program. His work furthered the Soviet Union's ability to "weaponize" plague and tularemia, and he developed the technology to manufacture anthrax on an industrial scale.

No wonder, then, that Alibek's recent book Biohazard1 has brought so much media attention to bioterrorism. Unlike many of his scientific peers, Alibek stresses the relative ease of obtaining, culturing, and delivering deadly biological agents. "From a technical standpoint a biological event is highly possible," he says. He has repeated his warnings on newsmagazine shows on every major network, from Dateline to 20/20. Biohazard has been reviewed in every major newspaper in the country and has even won the praise of fiction writers like Robin Cook and Richard Preston, authors of Contagion and The Hot Zone, respectively.

Alibek's prescription for public safety is a program for boosting non-specific immunity in the general population. Specific vaccines targeted against particular agents are useful, he says, but in limited ways. A pilot project on non-specific immunity is currently under way, and Alibek is a major contributor to that effort. "Who is in charge of medical defense?" asks Alibek. "Is that the Department of Defense's responsibility? Health and Human Services? It's not enough to have databases and a working public health system. It's not just that we have to spend more money. It's the least studied area medical defense. How do you organize local forces to contain effects of a biological attack?" Alibek pauses. "I do not know," he says, pensively. "I do not know."

But Robert Pollack, professor of biological sciences at Columbia and author of The Missing Moment: How the Unconscious Shapes Modern Science (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1999), takes exception to Alibek's claims on several fronts, starting with baseline assumptions. "The first is, I want our defense establishment not to tell us what it's doing in all cases. I don't know what's going on, and if I did know what's going on, I sure as hell hope that I'd have the discipline not to tell you what's going on. That's what makes me uneasy about someone like Alibek coming out of a biowarfare establishment and writing a book."

In the absence of information on the relation between the revelations in Biohazard and any underlying commitments, Pollack says, "I would predict that Alibek's question about medical defense can be begged. To ask it shows that either you know more than you're telling or you don't understand that people who do know these things see no value in telling you what they're doing. I think that's as much true for defense as offense. The country since Nixon has publicly stated it has no intention to develop an offensive biological weapons capability. But I don't think that means it has no intention to protect itself. I would assume and hope there are such protections in place, and I would presume and hope that there are links between HEW and the Defense Department. I don't know anything about them, and I hope I never have to find out."

Pollack feels that the best evidence of ongoing cooperation between the Departments of Defense and Health and Human Services would be the presence of a large-scale effort to create and distribute vaccines, freed from the obligation that they generate profit. "Nobody makes money in a fire department," says Pollack, "and nobody should make money on vaccines."

He is also skeptical of Alibek's widely publicized call for a program designed to prepare for a biological event by boosting non-specific immunity in the population. "I don't quite understand what a non-specific vaccine is," offers Pollack. "It seems to be an oxymoron. It wouldn't be a vaccine. It would be a booster of immune response, and the natural implication of boosting immunity is that you raise the risk of getting an allergic side reaction from something specific, if immune response is enhanced."

Amy E. Smithson, director of the Henry L. Stimson Center's Chemical and Biological Weapons Non-Proliferation Project in Washington, D.C., accepts many of Alibek's conclusions -- and warnings -- but emphasizes the media's place in a web of related interests. "Once Washington and the media get hold of a story they tend to beat it to death," muses Smithson. "Part of it has to do with how the funding game is played inside Washington. In order to get Congress to give different agencies money for their programs or to assist their capability in this area, a lot of high-level people are thinking about bioterrorism and biological warfare. There are a lot of books being written -- of the demon-in-freezer variety -- and the press is slopping big at this trough."

Smithson believes that we are potentially at risk for a major bioterrorism incident, but what we are looking ahead to combines "low probability with a potentially high number of casualties." She warns that the media's almost obsessive focus on the biological threat has obscured the dangers of a chemical attack. "I agree with the assessments that say something bad is going to happen," says Smithson, "but I think it's going to be in the chemical rather than the biological area because it's so much easier to accomplish."

But until very recently, resources were being dedicated primarily to preparing for chemical attacks. "The initial federal training and equipment and money were going to fire departments and hazardous materials teams," she says. "Money has been slow to get to the biological side. Only now are the Centers for Disease Control receiving funds for increasing disease surveillance capabilities."

"There's a gap in the media's coverage of our preparedness or lack thereof," says Columbia's Pollack. "I follow it by its absence. In the Tuesday science section of the Times you'd expect to see a lot more articles about specific examples of what preparedness would be. Preparedness is a concept which has not been fleshed out in rational ways." Pollack takes as his example New York City's recent response to the West Nile-like encephalitis outbreak, worrying aloud that the city's Office of Emergency Management, despite great expertise in handling fire or floods, responded to a less familiar biological emergency with the hasty expedient of malathion. "The spraying of all five boroughs for mosquitos with an agent that has some biological side effects seems to have been done very fast; it did not strike me as a plan, but as something last-minute. To the extent that we're not ready for the appearance of a viral disease like this one, it's unlikely that we're prepared for biological agents of the kind we're talking about.

"No rational plan should distribute a toxin or an agent to a vector without an assay to see if the agent is successful or not," says Pollack. "It's bad public health, bad science, and bad public policy to spend money on something without knowing if it's going to work. The media hasn't brought that out. At one extreme the British media see Giuliani as a mayor of a city under siege, with people dropping in the streets. That level of hysteria is not in U.S. papers."

Still, Pollack is concerned about the press's handling of what is for all intents and purposes a biological event (albeit one without human perpetrators). "The New York press handle it phenomenologically," says Pollack. "Living in a neighborhood being sprayed with something that kills something doesn't make you feel good. But the appearance of [OEM director Dr. Jerome] Hauer and others saying, 'I give my infant child formula with malathion because it's so safe,' or words to that effect, doesn't inspire confidence. They protest too much. I would accept it if they said, 'The full spectrum of outcomes is you don't want any more malathion than you have to have, but in net terms it's better to have it than not.' Instead they're saying it's absolutely safe, and that's not a considered statement. Journalists publish press releases to a shocking degree. They don't ask questions enough, and they're flattered by the attention that gets them the press release first. Scientists ask questions, but not enough scientists worry about what journalists say. That's the problem." --Gerry O'Sullivan

1. Alibek, Ken, and Stephen Handelman. Biohazard: The Chilling True Story of the Largest Covert Biological Weapons Program in the World Told from the Inside by the Man Who Ran It (NY: Random House, 1999).

Related links...

  • Statement of Dr. Kenneth Alibek to Joint Economic Committee, U. S. Congress, May 20, 1998

  • Ken Alibek, "Behind the Mask: Biological Warfare," Perspective 9.1 (Sept.-Oct. 1998), Institute for the Study of Conflict, Ideology, and Policy, Boston U.

  • Federal Emergency Management Agency

  • U.S. Department of Defense Anthrax Vaccine Immunization Program

  • Richard Preston, "The Bioweaponeers," New Yorker, March 9, 1998, pp. 52-65; reprinted on Cryptome surveillance archive, John Young

  • "Biowar," ABC News Nightline

  • Douglas McGray, "For Every Target, a Bomber," Salon, November, 1, 1999 (on Nightline's "Biowar" and other terrorism coverage

  • "Plague War," PBS Frontline report, 1998

  • Biological Terrorism Study, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies

  • Jonathan B. Tucker, "Bioweapons from Russia: Stemming the Flow," Issues in Science and Technology, Spring 1999

  • Gulbarshyn Bozheyeva, Yerlan Kunakbayev, and Dastan Yeleukenov, "Former Soviet Biological Weapons Facilities in Kazakhstan: Past, Present, and Future," Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Occasional Papers, Monterey Institute of International Studies

  • Michael Crowley, "Bioterror," Boston Phoenix, March 18-25, 1999

  • Philip K. Russell, "Vaccines in Civilian Defense Against Bioterrorism," Emerging Infectious Diseases 5(4), 1999; republished on Medscape

  • Task Force on Terrorism & Unconventional Warfare, "The Iraqi WMD Challenge -- Myths and Reality," report to U. S. House of Representatives, February 10, 1998

  • William J. Broad, Lawrence K. Altman, and Judith Miller, "Smallpox: The Once and Future Scourge," New York Times, June 15, 1999

  • Anthrax false alarm in Fernald, Ohio, Cincinnati Enquirer, November 9, 1999

  • Previous 21stC Metanews coverage of bioterrorism

  • 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). He has written on the media's coverage of terrorism and counterinsurgency for In These Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer, among others.

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