Discussion of Biology and Agriculture Terrorist Threats
S. Gopal and Jonathan Pollack,
S. Gopal, a discussion moderator, asked why terrorists should resort to bioterrorism against humans, animals, and plants. First, the advantage of bioterrorism is its cost-effectiveness compared with other forms of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). In one study the cost per casualty was assessed to be $2,800 for atomic weapons and $600 for conventional and chemical weapons, whereas the same study assessed the cost per casualty of using biological toxins and bioterrorism to be about $1. Another study says that, when delivered properly, the quantity of butolinum toxin needed to kill 10 people is as small as a dot of an “i”. If this is so, obviously there is a tremendous advantage to bioterrorism, which is sometimes called the poor man’s atomic bomb. Second, bioterrorist weapons are easy to produce. Again, according to one study, a biological arsenal could perhaps be built with $10,000 worth of equipment in a 15′ x 15′ room with gear no more sophisticated than a fermenter and a protein-based culture, and to protect the producer, a gas mask.
How effective will bioterrorism be? We must distinguish between the use of this weapon in developed countries and in developing countries.
Bioterrorism can be used against humans, and it can be spread through air or water or introduced in the food supply from the farm to the table. It can be used against livestock and animals, essentially to break the economy and create scarcity, and consequently demoralization and panic in the society. Third, agricultural pathogens can be introduced to decrease crop production, including cash crop production, and to disrupt the economy.
Terrorists using these methods need not be Islamic fundamentalists; they could be political or religious terrorists fighting against the state. Business competitors have used terrorism to ruin the business of their rivals. Cult groups, such as the Rajneeshee, could use it for revenge against individuals, companies, or the state. In the United States there have been one or two such cases. In 2003, a supermarket worker was caught introducing insecticides containing nicotine into beef.
All this is terrorism, though we tend to think that terrorism is practiced by people
of certain ethnicities or religions. It could even be state sponsored against another state, to hurt another state’s economy or agriculture. Apart from decreasing food production, there is also the enormous economic cost of the recovery process, recycling food, and cleaning up the contamination. In bioterrorism against humans, one of the most feared events would be the return of smallpox. Though the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the world free of smallpox, there are still lingering suspicions that strains of smallpox are being held for experiments. As long as something exists, there is always the chance of it showing up in the population.
Of course, there has been a lot of publicity about the danger of anthrax. Anthrax does not spread from individual to individual, and in fact, in India, anthrax exists. We have been dealing with it and there has been no panic. There are many areas where farmers know exactly where the cattle should not graze, because of anthrax-infested areas.
Acquiring or producing a very virulent pathogen is also much more difficult. This would involve access to biological scientists by terrorist groups. Aum Shinrikyo tried but failed to get the Ebola virus. It may be easier, however, to introduce anticrop fungal diseases and so forth. Assuming that these are all being done, what is the time frame in which the effect is seen? Is the terrorist willing to wait for the time frame, especially in the agricultural field? With a good monitoring mechanism, is it not possible to detect it early and take countermeasures?
These pests and strains do not recognize international borders. We have had a case of a virus affecting chicken coming from Israel, noticed in Pakistan, eventually ending up in southern India. In such cases, Gopal noted, he did not believe that any right-thinking state would intentionally indulge in this kind of activity because it can boomerang. With basic monitoring mechanisms and a well-established public health policy, this is a controllable problem. What has however been a dangerous trend in the past has been that commercial damage is tried by both state and nonstate terrorists. In 1979 Palestinian terrorists introduced mercury into Israeli oranges, which caused a tremendous problem, and in 1981 the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) threatened to contaminate Sri Lankan tea with cyanide.
Gopal felt that bioterrorism and agricultural terrorism should be considered more from the perspective of economic damage than from that of individual damage or harm. The economic damage will be great regardless of the source of the attack, and it will be difficult to trace the source of the attack.
In agricultural terrorism we should be able to use even existing technologies such as satellite imagery and aerial imagery, and even proper monitoring by the concerned agricultural departments, to notice early enough that there is a problem in a particular area and react quickly.
Another form of bioterrorism, apart from using pathogens, could be to introduce noxious weeds; this has been a problem in India. Specifically, there was a parthenium problem in India, and it is still a problem in many places where the parthenium was not indigenous to the country. It was suspected to have come from imported food grains, and now it occupies acres and acres of land and is dangerous, and it is creating a lot of problems for humans. It is possible to weed it out, but at a high price.
This is not a kind of terrorism that is impossible to control if technologies are in place. For example, a good public health administration system throughout the country
with a network, which is connected not only with their own offices but also with individual veterinary doctors, veterinary hospitals, agricultural institutions, and even village cooperatives, would make it possible to know at once that a problem is developing. We could then deploy all available technologies to contain and eliminate it. At the same time we have to take notice of the degree of likeliness of an attack, because the economic costs may be very high. The technology required is networking, monitoring, and the provisioning of antibodies, which can take care of the problem if it arises.
Jonathan Pollack’s response noted the danger of allowing the phrase “countering terrorism” to be a catchall for the world’s ills. Both analytically and as a public policy issue the term is not useful even if there may be ways in which the expenditure of money may yield important and beneficial results. Pollack noted that the presentations spanned the problems that we see both in advanced industrial economies and in predominantly agricultural economies, as is India, even with its significant industrial advancement. Indeed, it highlights looking back to the title of the National Academies’ report, which appropriately emphasized “making the nation safer”—not safe but safer. A theme for the kind of collaboration that we would want to see between India and the United States would be, ambitiously, how one makes the world safer.
Pollack agreed that the examples provided by the presenters offer fertile ground for discussion, but he warned that we are dealing both literally and figuratively with a very different species of threat, something for which we are not well organized collectively to counteract. This may require very different models of international security collaboration, as terrorism is a method of warfare, or a particular way of using violence, presumably for different kinds of effects. The difficulty, of course, is that effective countermeasures for one type of terrorism are not necessarily effective for other types, and as Christopher Davis noted, in some cases the term weapons of mass destruction (WMD) is a misnomer. Pollack suggested that it was Vannevar Bush who first used the term in a memorandum to President Dwight D. Eisenhower about 50 years ago. WMD as a term has been expropriated for a variety of purposes; we are most focused on the incredible destructive capability of nuclear weapons, rather than the challenges that were discussed in this panel, although Pollack agreed that both presentations showed ways in which biological threats could entail mayhem of incalculable scale. Even so, given the very particular character of some of these biological threats, because causality is highly problematic and the effects can be delayed, it may be very difficult to conceive of and cope with this problem, at least in the way we deal with specific incidents.
Similarly, what struck Pollack in some of the examples provided in both presentations was that the relevant examples tended to occur within societies rather than on a transnational basis. Further, Pollack asked, if some kinds of terrorist attacks are indeed so feasible, why have we not seen more of them—does this suggest that such incidents and activities have been foiled? In Pollack’s view, most of what we must deal with in these realms is in the core competencies of different terrorist groups. They do very well at shooting people or blowing them up; they do not seem to have core competence in wielding weapons of mass destruction.
Pollack also pointed out that we do not live in a world of boundless resources, and we have to grapple with questions of allocating our effort to the areas where we can
achieve the most beneficial results. Pollack’s final comment on Davis’s presentation was that we do need to be aware that our heightened awareness about biological attacks stems from the anthrax incidents. Had they not taken place, it is doubtful whether we would have seen a renewed interest in infectious diseases in the United States and elsewhere in the developing world. He suggested that we need to seize this opportunity to expand research on such issues even if it takes us well beyond issues of terrorism.
Turning to Kalyan Banerjee’s presentation, Pollack suggested that we need to know more about what the political effects of bioterrorism might be on a vulnerable, predominantly agricultural, economy such as India’s. Pollack noted that most instances of famine, and the use of food as a political weapon, were politically induced within various societies, often inflicted on the populations of those societies by the people who claim to lead them. Some examples of this include the extraordinary famine in China after the Great Leap Forward (1959-1961), where perhaps as many as 30 million people died, and the North Korean famine in the mid-1990s, when perhaps as many as 1 to 2 million people (or approximately 5 to10 percent of North Korea’s population) died. Other examples of state-induced famine or biological disaster are evident in Africa. So often the villain is from within; we have to remember this as we search for effective ways to deal with these looming crises.
In the subsequent discussion, Vijay Chandru touched on two points: the issue of public-private partnership cooperation in the U.S.-India context, and India’s capacity to respond to threat. He pointed out that his own (Indian) biotech company has investments from Goldman Sachs and several U.S. funds, but is also supported by the Indian government through soft loans and research and development money from agencies such as the New Millennium Initiative of Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the Technology Development Board, and the World Bank fund through ICICI.64 Private companies have already transcended national boundaries, and his company has U.S. board members and maintains a branch office in San Francisco.
In addressing the problem of real-time diagnostics for infectious diseases, Chandru noted that Indian technical and scientific capabilities to build such a system already exist. The idea here, of course, is that there are viral and bacterial infections and various strains of these infections and mutations, and we need to be able to diagnose very quickly. High-throughput technologies such as microarrays and polymerase chain reactions (PCRs) are certainly most appropriate for doing this. However, in designing these microarrays, since these are DNA-based technologies, informatics are heavily involved in looking at the genome sequences and selecting the right representative oligonucleotides, and so forth. The agencies in India that Chandru had interacted with, and that might be helpful, include the Institute for Genomics and Integrated Biology based in Delhi. The institute possesses the sequonome mass array system that can be used for rapid sequencing. They also do spotting of microarrays and PCR. He noted the existence of other groups, such as the Center for DNA Fingerprinting in Hyderabad, which is also a candidate for collaboration, just as there may be similar collaborative projects in the United States. Chandru suggested that it would be useful to bring these teams together.
He referred to a case study of upper respiratory viruses that Strand Genomics Ltd.
had conducted by looking at essentially the whole genomes of various viruses and viral pathogens and developing a diagnostic array that could distinguish, that is, look for specificity but also look for conservation across genera. Because of mutation problems, we want to be able to identify at least the genera from which a particular viral pathogen comes. In one case, Chandru’s company has designed a virtual microarray and runs a simulator of hybridization including all the thermodynamics of hybridization in the background. It is possible to submit a sequence, and this virtual microarray will light up, indicating from which particular virus strain this may come. Chandru noted that this information is available on the company’s Web site, the database is public, available from the WHO, and various groups in Singapore use the technology. These capabilities are in India and are available for cooperative projects.
Lewis Branscomb asked about the relationship between infectious pathogens and chemical toxins that might be used in terrorism, since both share a common set of features, one of which is the need for a distribution system to distribute the weapon. He added that serious thought ought to be given to the various systems in society through which either pathogens or chemicals might be distributed to a very large number of people in such a short time because it might be impossible to shut the distribution system down in time. Branscomb pointed out that this was a feature of the anthrax attack, because the letters in the mail were contaminating one another and the authorities did not know how many there were. If someone in a factory manufacturing postage stamps were able to contaminate one day’s production of stamps, there would be a significant effect, especially if the stamps had to be licked. In this particular case, because stamps come from one place, it would be relatively easy to implement a set of controls and tests, but with newspaper delivery, or the distribution of bills by banks, and other examples, it would not be that simple.
K. Santhanam made four observations regarding agricultural terrorism. First, in his view, agroterrorism could amount to economic warfare and it may affect an economy, and he would treat it differently than terrorism associated with the chemical industry or agriculture. Santhanam submitted that terrorism affecting the economy of a country, and its trade and commerce, fell into another important category. For instance, prawns that were exported from India to Australia were claimed to have salmonella. Sales declined and prawn exports from India to other parts of the world, especially from Goa and Orissa, and some parts of Tamil Nadu, were affected. There might have been commercial reasons behind the scare.
As for the leakage of chemical, biological, and nuclear materials and agents out of the former Soviet Union to other places, we have been told that there are no problems. There was a CBS 60 Minutes story describing an ampoule containing a biological agent that someone had acquired in the Pakistani city of Quetta—weaponization had occurred. Santhanam asked how we would respond to a major source of leakage and seepage, not just of agents, but potentially of technologies as well.
Santhanam’s third comment referred to Project BioWatch, which was mentioned by Christopher Davis. His view was that the thief has to be halted before reaching the intended target, and therefore international cooperation of a very high order is required to keep this dangerous material from getting into the atmosphere of a small town in the United States. Regretfully, Santhanam pointed out, the trends are otherwise, and attempts to make the 1972 Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention (BWC) stronger and more
enforceable were systematically frustrated, given lower priority in U.S. diplomacy because it might have had an impact on the U.S. pharmaceutical biotech industries.
Finally, Santhanam discussed cases where a planned attack might be disguised as an act of nature. There was an early U.S. program of weather modification, which was aimed at the Cuban sugar crop. The success or failure of this kind of cloud rustling is less relevant than it being imagined; also, he noted, the scale of disturbance noted in the Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques was left delightfully vague. There is also the example of foot-and-mouth disease in Taiwan, where they are convinced that this was actually exported by China to cripple Taiwan.
In his response, Davis agreed that the Taiwan case was extremely suspicious, wiping out Taiwan’s entire pork industry (and they were the main pork producers for the entire region). The variant came from China and yet we still cannot prove that it was deliberately transported to Taiwan.
As for Santhanam’s comment on BioWatch and the BWC, Davis suggested that while international cooperation is needed, the BioWatch system is the first ever established and is still in an early stage (it has 36 sites now). Davis explained that the BWC was connected closely with politics at the highest level, and that in his judgment there seems to be no way of getting all of the concerned parties to agree on a convention that actually makes sense and is enforceable. He knew of no one who had a good idea on how to solve the political impasse; there is a basic unwillingness of countries to allow teams from abroad to walk in and inspect their facilities.
Santhanam then suggested that if the United States felt the need for a new nuclear materials proliferation security initiative (PSI), then he was sure that it would be enlarged to chemical and biological as well, including seizure of ships on the high seas. This would certainly be outside the BWC, but what we might see is a PSI of like-minded countries, with Britain in the forefront. The radius of the circle may be enlarged, but still it will be a “little club” approach, and less effective than a larger internationally agreed approach to such problems well before they reach the U.S. mainland.
In his closing remarks, Banerjee commented on surveillance of potential agricultural or human diseases, stating that it has to be done on a global level, sharing data. Without that, he doubted that much could be achieved in the prevention of terrorism or warfare using biological weapons.
Banerjee also suggested that there ought to be a national serum bank system, where serum and blood samples taken from throughout the country may be stored and tested for the presence of a virus or disease. It would serve as a baseline to determine if detected disease was new or old.
As for Santhanam’s comments on the BWC verification protocol, he noted that there had been vigorous protests against it, bringing the BWC close to a standstill. These protests are partly justified for corporate business interests, yet a lot can be done in situ without taking any material or property outside. There is no reason why in situ verification cannot be done, so that nothing leaves the system of a particular corporate organization.
Banerjee concluded by discussing the possible use of corporate groups to manipulate the agricultural production of a country. That problem has to be solved, he emphasized; it cannot be evaded by saying that this is important to free enterprise. Free
enterprise yes, but free enterprise to squeeze others is not acceptable. Banerjee summarized his view with the aphorism, “corporate business corrupts and consumer corporate business corrupts consummately.”
In the final remark of this discussion on bioterrorism, Rose Gottemoeller expressed her agreement with Santhanam’s concern about the PSI tending toward a club-like arrangement; she noted that there were many in the George W. Bush administration who were highly resistant to legal mechanisms of various kinds, particularly on a multilateral basis, and preferred informally articulated arrangements. In Gottemoeller’s view, they have realized that the PSI needs some legal underpinnings, and they are looking at drug interdiction as one model; furthermore, there are already legal arrangements in place, in the context of the International Maritime Organization, for interdiction-related issues. Of course, she concluded, having adequate intelligence capabilities in place for interdiction is as important as developing a legal underpinning for the PSI.