Corona and Bioterrorism: How Serious Is the Threat?
The novel coronavirus pandemic has put the threat of bioterrorism back in the spotlight. White supremacist chat rooms are teeming with talk about “biological warfare.” ISIL even called the virus “one of Allah’s soldiers” because of its devastating effect on Western countries. According to a recent memo by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, terrorists are “[making] bioterrorism a popular topic among themselves.” Both the United Nations and the Council of Europe have warned of bioterrorist attacks.
How serious is the threat? There is a long history of terrorists being fascinated by biological weapons, but it is also one of failures. For the vast majority, the technical challenges associated with weaponizing biological agents have proven insurmountable. The only reason this could change is if terrorists were to receive support from a state. Rather than panic about terrorists engaging in biological warfare, governments should be vigilant, secure their own facilities, and focus on strengthening international diplomacy.
A History of Failures
Biological warfare, which uses organisms and pathogens to cause disease, is nearly as old as war itself. The first known use of biological agents as a weapon dates back to 600 B.C., when an ancient Greek leader poisoned his enemies’ water supply. Throughout the Middle Ages, especially during the time of the Black Death, it was common to hurl infected corpses into besieged cities. And during the two world wars, all major powers maintained biological weapons programs (although only Japan used them in combat).
Among terrorists, however, the use of biological weapons has been rarer, although groups from nearly all ideological persuasions have contemplated it. Recent examples include a plot to contaminate Chicago’s water supply in the 1970s; food poisoning by a religious cult in Oregon in the 1980s; and the stockpiling of ricin by members of the Minnesota Patriot Council during the 1990s. No one died in any of these instances.
The same is true for the biological warfare programs of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group. Both groups have sought to buy, steal, or develop biological agents. For al-Qaeda, this seems to have been a priority in the 1990s, when its program was overseen by (then) deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, a trained physician. With the Islamic State, evidence dates back to 2014, when Iraqi forces discovered thousands of files related to biological warfare on a detainee’s laptop.
Yet none of these efforts succeeded. The only al-Qaeda plot in which bioterrorism featured prominently — the so-called “ricin plot” in England in 2002 — was interrupted at such an early stage that none of the toxin had actually been produced. The Islamic State’s most serious attempt, in 2017, involved a small amount of ricin, whose only fatality was the hamster on which it was tested. Of the tens of thousands of people that jihadists have murdered, not a single one has died from biological agents.
It may be no accident that the most lethal bioterrorist attack in recent decades was perpetrated by a scientist and government employee. In late 2001, the offices of several U.S. senators and news organizations received so-called “anthrax letters,” which killed five people and injured 17. Following years of investigation, the FBI identified the sender as Bruce Ivins, a PhD microbiologist and senior researcher at the U.S. Army’s Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. Unlike the others, he was no amateur or hoaxer, but a trained expert with years of experience and full access to the world’s largest repository of lethal biological agents.
Ivins’ case helps to explain why so many would-be bioterrorists have failed. At a technical level, launching a sophisticated, large-scale bioterrorist attack involves a toxin or a pathogen — generally a bacterium or a virus — which needs to be isolated and disseminated. But this is more difficult than it seems. As well as advanced training in biology or chemistry, isolating the agent requires significant experience. It also has to be done in a safe, contained environment, to stop it from spreading within the terrorist group. Contrary to what al-Qaeda said in one of its online magazines, you can’t just make a (biological) weapon “in the kitchen of your mom!”
In addition, there is the challenge of dissemination. Unless the agent is super-contagious, a powerful biological attack relies on a large number of initial infections in perfect conditions. In the case of the bacterium anthrax, for example, only spores of a particular size are likely to be effective in certain kinds of weather. State-sponsored programs often needed years of testing and experimentation to understand how their weapons could be used. Though not impossible, it is unlikely that terrorist groups possess the resources, stable environment, and patience to do likewise.
Even if terrorists somehow succeeded, it is nearly inconceivable that the resulting “weapon” would be as powerful as the recent coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. One of its uniquely devastating features has been that people are infectious while experiencing no symptoms. As it spread across the globe, there was no treatment, no vaccine, an incomplete understanding of its pathological modes of action, and no easy, cheap and widely available testing. It was the viral equivalent of a “zero-day exploit” — a cyber-attack that happens before any patch is available.
None of the viruses on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s list of the most dangerous biological agents could be easily “weaponized” or would have the same, devastating effects as SARS-CoV-2. Pathogenic viruses such as smallpox, Ebola, Marburg, and Lassa are extremely hard to find, isolate, and spread. Botulinum and ricin are dangerous toxins, but not contagious, while Tularemia cannot be transmitted from human to human. The plague is, of course, capable of causing pandemics, but most countries are nowadays well prepared for this particular virus, and will be able to limit — and cope with — localized outbreaks.
This leaves only anthrax, a soil bacterium which is relatively easy to obtain. Even so, isolating a highly pathogenic strain is difficult. More importantly, anthrax is not contagious, and while its spores are durable and affected areas can be hard to de-contaminate, it is unable to spread on its own.
Regarding SARS-CoV-2, it is important to distinguish between the possibility that the virus occurred naturally and escaped from a laboratory, and the idea that it was engineered for maximum infectiousness and deliberately released. The first remains a possibility, although other explanations are equally — if not more — plausible, while the second has been debunked by a comprehensive examination in the journal Nature Medicine, which concluded that SARS-CoV-2 was “not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.”
The chances that terrorists would be capable of engineering a virus such as SARS-CoV-2 without access to a state’s resources are virtually zero. If anything, the possibility of a lab escape — however remote — highlights the importance of biosafety. While governments have paid much attention to laboratories with the highest biosafety level (level 4), work on bat-born coronaviruses is regularly performed at lower levels (level 3, and even level 2), and should instead be subject to similar safety requirements.
In sum, small-scale attacks using anthrax or other agents may be possible, but the risk of a highly advanced, weaponized pathogen that spreads among large populations — a terrorist-initiated biological doomsday — is very low. The only exception, of course, is if terrorists received support from a state, acted as its proxies, or were able to draw on its resources — as in Ivins’ case.
A Preventable Catastrophe
It seems clear, therefore, that governments’ priority should be to limit the potential for states and terrorist groups to cooperate, because it is only through states that terrorists are likely to obtain a significant bio-terrorist capability. In practical terms, this means developing intelligence capabilities, securing facilities, and making sure that government scientists — especially those working with high-risk pathogens — are regularly vetted. Biosecurity also requires well-funded and functioning public health systems, which limit the potential consequences of any attack.
Not least, countering bioterrorism involves strengthening diplomacy. The Biological Weapons Convention, which has been in effect since 1975, is a powerful international norm, but continues to lack both an implementing organization and a verification mechanism. In their absence, governments should push for bi- and multilateral agreements, the full implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1540 (which calls on all states to refrain from supporting any nonstate actor seeking nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons), capacity-building programs, and the creative use of existing tools. This includes the Chemical Weapons Convention, which already deals with ricin and saxitoxin, but could be used to regulate other high-risk toxins as well.
If governments take it seriously — and act strategically — bioterrorism is a catastrophe that never needs to happen.
Marc-Michael Blum is a former Head of Laboratory at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. He holds a PhD in Biochemistry from the University of Frankfurt.
Peter Neumann is Professor of Security Studies at King’s College London, and served as Director of its International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation from 2008-18.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated, “The Islamic State’s most serious attempt, in 2017, involved a small amount of ricin, whose only fatality was the hamster on which it was tested.” In fact, the hamster survived.