Biology as warfare

Mark Wheelis

Photo by Steven T. Jones

In the beginning of his academic career, Mark Wheelis, a senior microbiology lecturer at the University of California at Davis, was your typical unassuming laboratory scientist. But after about 10 years of cultures and petri dishes, he started to get a little restless and bored, and turned his research attention to biological weapons. He learned about the Mongol army catapulting plague-ridden corpses into the besieged city of Caffa in 1346, about the British giving the blankets of smallpox patients to Native Americans in 1763, about the Japanese dropping plague-infected fleas into Chinese cities during World War II and about extensive biological weapons programs developed by Russia and the United States during the Cold War. He became an expert in the field, and a busy man since September 11. Here are some excerpts from a recent conversation with SN&R:

What turned your attention from laboratory work to researching biological weapons?

I was teaching a general education course in microbiology for non-science majors, and so one of the things we spent a lot of time talking about was disease. And one of the things I emphasized in that course was the impact of infectious disease on human history. I had them read McNeil’s book Plagues and Peoples, which makes a very strong case that the patterns of infectious disease were invisible allies of standing empires. And so the question obviously arose that if disease was so important an ally of empires during their expansionist phases, were they ever used deliberately as a weapon? That led me into biological warfare history, and there had been no good work in this field, so I decided to do some myself.

Would you say the current attacks with anthrax through the mail is an effective use of biological weapons?

No, it’s an extremely crude form of attack. It’s actually rather puzzling, because it appears that the anthrax spores they are using are fairly high grade. The government is being very unforthcoming with information about this, but as nearly as I can tell from the published reports in the New York Times and the like, it appears that the spore preparations are high potency; that is, they are mainly spores without a lot of junk with it. It appears they are fairly finely ground, so they disperse in the air fairly easily. It may not be what people are fond of calling weapons grade, but it’s still a fairly potent, well-produced preparation of spores. So that suggests a level of sophistication in terms of production of the material, but the application is fairly crude.

That’s an odd dichotomy, and it suggests to me one of two things: either the people using the spores are not the same people that produced them—possibly they obtained them from some state with a covert biological weapons programs, such as Iraq—or if they are the producers of them, it suggests a sophistication on the group that is greater than one would guess from the way they are delivering them and would lead me to fear they may escalate the attacks by using other means of attack than these contaminated letters.

What means of attack are the scariest to you?

The most scary way to use anthrax is to produce an aerosol, a suspension in the air of particles, that people breathe in without realizing they are exposed. One of the great drawbacks of using letters to deliver the material is people know they have been attacked when they get the letter, at least certainly now. That allows authorities to begin prophylactic antibiotic treatment of everyone who was exposed, which will greatly minimize the effects of the attack.

So then what’s your big fear?

I would be worried about somebody taking this dry, finely ground powder and simply dispersing it into the air intake for a large building. Without any particular aerosol device, you could just shake it and let the air current waft it up. Or getting some kind of dispersal unit and putting the dried spores into an aerosol cloud and then just drive around the city during rush hour with the nozzle out the window. Both would be relatively crude aerosol attacks. They would be nowhere near the kind of military attack that is the worst-case scenario, in which a very large aerosol cloud would drift over an entire city, but that’s almost certainly beyond the capabilities of any terrorist groups we know now.

Is anthrax the biggest biological weapon threat?

It’s a little hard to answer that question. The biggest worry is smallpox. Smallpox is undoubtedly the most serious disease human beings have ever had to deal with. Its cumulative toll of suffering and death is greater than that of the wars of humankind combined. So it’s been a real scourge for humanity …

Smallpox worries me the most because if it were re-released by a terrorist attack into the world, and that happened say in the next six months, it’s very possible that we couldn’t contain it, that it would spread across the United States and from the United States to the rest of the world, and that could be a nightmarish scenario. … A billion deaths in the world over a few years would not be unlikely. It would be an enormous disaster, something unparalled in human history, even by the Black Death.

How likely is an attack using smallpox?

The terrorist use of smallpox is extremely unlikely, because they can’t get their hands on the virus. It is known to be present in only two places in the world: the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and the Vector Institute in Koltsovo, Russia. Both places have high security and it’s unlikely smallpox could be smuggled out of those facilities.