Date: October 1, 2007
Abstract: The threat of terrorists using biological agents to attack the United States has preoccupied Barry Kellman, a professor of international law and director of the International Weapons Control Center at the DePaul University College of Law for the past decade.
Kellman is special adviser to Interpol on prevention of bio-crimes, a program he initiated. He describes bio-violence -- the possibility of terrorists using biological agents -- “as a threat without borders to the human species.”
Kellman has documented his research, his findings, his fears and his recommendations on how to tackle this potential disaster in his newly released book, “Bioviolence: Preventing Biological Terror and Crime.”
Kellman rates the risks of bio-violence -- violence resulting from terrorists using biological agents to inflict the greatest harm possible -- “as a very serious threat.” He says: “In a major biological attack in the foreseeable future, even if the attack is of lower intensity, it has the capacity of producing millions of casualties.”
While much of the focus of counter-terrorism specialists seems to revolve on fears of terrorists getting their hands on a nuclear device or obtaining enough plutonium to produce a dirty bomb, Kellman believes bio-violence has a far greater devastating potential. He explains the differences: Devastating as it might be, the result of a nuclear detonation remains localized, to a certain degree, around the area of the explosion, along with the fallout zone, usually limited to a radius of a few miles, depending on the power of the nuclear warhead. The victims caught at ground zero and those unfortunate enough to be caught downwind from the fallout are the likely casualties. People outside the blast zone and away from the fallout perimeter are, in principle, safe.
Whereas a major biological attack -- say a deliberate spreading of anthrax, botulism or smallpox -- is contagious, or easy to spread and can spread far beyond the point of original contamination. These three bio-agents, along with others, are classified as Category A agents by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Classification as Category A by the CDC identifies a biological agent with recognized bioterrorism potential.
Given that these bio-agents are so contagious and/or easy to disseminate, it adds the element of panic when people living thousands of miles from the strike zone suddenly fall victim of an attack that was carried out on the other side of the globe. It perpetuates the feeling there is no safe place to hide, adding panic to chaos and making it all that harder for law enforcement agencies to control the situation. And that, the notion that no border will be able to prevent the initial spread of the disease, is what makes the thought of a well-coordinated bioterror attack so terrifying, Kellman says.
To be sure, there are effective vaccines stockpiled by authorities around the country and the world to counter such attacks. However, experts say by the time the agent is identified and the appropriate vaccine issued, tens of thousands of people are likely to die first. And secondly, would there be enough vaccines to inoculate an entire population? Although health and public safety authorities in most jurisdictions claim to have enough vaccines stockpiled precisely in the eventuality of such a scenario unfolding, it seems rather unlikely.
He points to difficulties faced by law enforcement agents when it comes to tracking biological weapons or agents that may be weaponized.
Nuclear material for the most part can be traced, or has been traced. The information is maintained by the International Atomic Energy Agency. But when it comes to biological agents, Kellman says, “We don’t know where the biological agents are nor how to ensure the pathogens don’t disappear” -- as indeed they have from many laboratories worldwide.
Part of the problem, explains the professor, is there is no central institution in charge of documenting, tracking and policing biological agents. “We are talking about a trans-global threat,” said Kellman. “It’s a threat to the international peace and security. And it’s not going away.”
Another major factor is the bureaucracy surrounding international laws, which moves very slowly. “Time consideration is the real challenge. We have to start predicting 10-15 years down the road.”The solution, says Kellman, though far from a perfect one, is to task the United Nations with forming three agencies to act as watchdogs. In the interim, all while pursuing his work, Kellman prays that his predictions may be proven wrong (UPI, 2007).