Global community should prevent increasing threat of bioterrorism

November 27, 2013 10:04 am

The problem of world biological safety again became very popular after some media reported about the US plans to build its microbiological laboratory in the vicinity of Ukraine’s suburban town of Shelkostantsia near Merefa.

bio hazzardAccording to the published information, the project is implemented on the basis of the agreement between the Ministry of Health of Ukraine and the US Ministry of Defense concerning cooperation in preventing the spread technology, pathogens and expertise that can be used to develop biological weapons signed on 29 August 2005. Nine laboratories in Ukraine have already been converted or built under this agreement.

The observers are concerned about the secrecy of works on creation of such institutions and about the fact that Pentagon – but not a civilian agency – stands at the head of this project.

Certain fears are also associated with the need for construction of large storage facilities for pathogens that are required in the laboratory under the contract. According to the experts, these storage facilities cannot provide “protection against biological threats,” while the quantity of microorganisms sufficient for laboratory tests does not exceed the volume of the tube.

Moreover, local people express anxiety about the location of future biological laboratory, the construction of which is planned for the area adjacent to a residential neighborhood.

“We do not want to be hostages of what to be created here and we will oppose it in all possible ways. This place is particularly suitable for fast distribution of any pathogens. The small river Rzhavchik, which falls into the Mzha and then into the Seversky Donets that supplies all East Ukraine with drinking water and then falls into Don in Russia, is just 500 meters from it. Nearby there is the route “Simferopol — Moscow” with heavy traffic, and it is in 300 meters from a place of alleged construction of biological laboratory. 1,5 km away, there is a railroad. The wind direction changes every six months: first, it blows to Kharkov and then to Novaya Vodolaga, so the residents of this town also actively participate in petition against construction. In case of unforeseen circumstances, the distribution of pathogens will be very fast and will spread over huge territories. We are especially indignant at the fact that the laboratory construction is planned about 70 meters away from the houses,” said Yuri Grebenuk, one of the Ukrainian activists.

In turn, Nikolai Ruchkin, the chairman of the ecological community “Zelena Vezha,” also noted that the organization will not allow the facility construction and “will resist the invasion of the invaders who want to turn Ukraine into a testing ground for questionable technology.”

Meanwhile the biological activity of the United States is a concern not only to the citizens of those countries where the US laboratories are built but also to the wider international community.

“On July 12, the US Department of State published a report On Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Non-proliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments for 2012, which provides evaluations of respect of contractual commitments by other states. Like in the previous years, the United States continue to beg the question that Russia allegedly continues to violate its commitments under some international treaties. In particular, the respect of Russia’s commitments under the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) is questioned again. No proof as always. At the same time, these American concerns could have been be fully eliminated long ago, of the United States did not block the creation of a verification mechanism within BTWC. Such mechanism would also allow removing many questions to the United States as regards the involvement of several US organisations into large-scale double application biological activities. As you know, results of such activities may be used for the purposes contrary to BTWC Article I. Beside that, there is no documentary evidence that all the site under United States’ jurisdiction or control, which earlier participated in military biological programmes, have been destroyed or diverted to peaceful purposes pursuant to BTWC Article II. We are also seriously concerned with biological activities of the US Department of Defence near Russian borders,” says the message of the Information and Press Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia.

Commenting on the construction of the biological laboratory in Merefa, Sarah Reinke, expert on the CIS states, head of the Berlin office of the Society for Threatened Peoples (STP), said that in the case of such projects it is of the utmost necessity to involve the population concerned in the decision making process.

“As far as I understand, there was no stakeholder dialogue and the information politics about the projects were not transparent at all. This of course leads to suspicion and raises doubts as to the good intentions of the project,” she noted.

Moreover, in her opinion, the issue is politically charged.

bioterrorism“In the wake of the EU-Ukraine summit in Vilnius the whole debate surrounding the laboratory has a political dimension especially in connection to the relationship between Russia and Ukraine. It seems to me that an interference of the US has the potential of worsening the relationship even more,” Sarah Reinke added.

Speaking about the threat of bioterrorism in general, Donald Henderson from UPMC Center for Biosecurity stressed that it is significantly greater today than it was in the past.

“As scientists and politicians became increasingly aware of the potential threats – indeed, possible disasters – they have become more conscious of laboratory safety issues and needed countermeasures that can be taken should an attack occur. Meanwhile, science has progressed in its sophistication and in its capability to do greater good for larger numbers but, at the same time, potentially greater harm. Increasing numbers of scientists in increasing numbers of laboratories in many more countries have obtained both skills and access to equipment for the development and production of both biological and chemical weapons,” the expert said.

That is why, in his opinion, it is necessary to educate about the threats and to develop efficient regulations and oversight mechanisms.

“The recent array of concerns about new pandemic strains of influenza illustrates well the difficulty in keeping abreast with the science and in preparing adequate diagnostic instruments and vaccines to cope. Even with early detection when a new strain emerges, it is difficult to foresee an optimal outcome even in the best equipped countries,” he noted.

According to him, in 2002 the US invested special funds to assure better preparedness and response mechanisms at state and local level.

“A great deal of progress was made but for the past five years, efforts have steadily waned. It will probably require another episode of some sort – perhaps a new, emergent biological agent or perhaps use of a biological agent in an aggressive manner – for our state of preparedness can reach higher and more sustainable levels of interest and activity,” Donald Henderson said.

“In the increasingly sophisticated world in which we live, potentially catastrophic events are going to be more frequent and the need for more sophisticated methods for anticipating and response will be critical. However, mapping a longer-term affordable set of directions is extremely difficult,” he added.

In turn, Margaret E. Kosal, Assistant Professor at Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, Georgia Institute of Technology, stressed that there is much more to bioterrorism than just possession of a microbe but too often, bioterrorism is seen as being the same as possession of a pathogen.

“Creating a truly effective bioterrorist weapon is not trivial. It requires a lot more than just having a sample or Petri dish of a virus or bacteria,” the expert said.

In her opinion, the threat of bioterrorism today can be divided into low-level threats of improvised weapons: these are the most likely and least dangerous. According to her, the effect is likely to be as much psychological as physiological.

“In most cases, concerns related to research that involves pathogenic organism are over-stated. I am concerned about attempts to limit the bioterrorism risk that may inadvertently limit or completely stop legitimate basic research,” Margaret Kosal said.

Meanwhile, according to her, threat is a function of capability – technical materials and the knowledge to do something, motivation, and vulnerability.

“Most nations have taken steps to reduce both capability, through restrictions on access to pathogens, and vulnerability, through programs to increase availability of protective methods like vaccines and increased planning and training by first responders. Reducing motivation has gotten much less attention comparatively are steps to reduce motivation, which is much harder than the first two,” the analyst noted.

Stephen S. Morse, Professor of Epidemiology, Fellow of American Academy of Microbiology, Chair at Columbia University Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBC), Global co-Director of PREDICT – USAID Emerging Pandemic Threats (EPT) Program, suggested that bioterrorism is as much of a threat as ever, and likely to increase, not decrease, in the future.

bioterror“Advances in molecular biology and biotechnology continue to make it easier to use organisms, and even to develop novel applications, and at lower cost. This has great potential to help people and save lives, but will also make it easier to use pathogens or biological substances for destructive purposes,” the expert explained.

At the same time, he stressed that there is a 50-year history of safely working with the most dangerous pathogens known to humanity.

“There have been some laboratory accidents, even a few tragic ones, but transmission outside the laboratory has almost never occurred. So research can be done safely, but we mustn’t become complacent about it. Personnel must be well-trained and must pay careful attention to biosafety precautions and proper technique. The key is good personnel carefully using the well established precautions, and good laboratory engineering. Lab management and design should encourage these good practices,” the professor noted.

According to him, to avoid the potential threat of bioterrorism, there need to be close international cooperation and sharing of threat information; countries should unite in the message that bioterrrorism is a threat to all humanity.

“Those who are responsible for preventing or responding to terrorism should develop good relationships with the scientific community. Scientists should uphold high ethical, professional and safety standards, and teach this to their students. Better public education about infectious diseases and biotechnology can help to demystify the subject and remove some of the “terror” from bioterrorism. Bioterrorism is still very serious, but our fear of the unknown adds to its effects,” Stephen Morse said.

In his opinion, having good preparedness plans and preparedness training are important.

“Moreover, it is very important to strengthen the public health system, including infectious disease surveillance and response. The few known historical examples show that it is the public health system that is most likely to notice it first, and it is essential in responding to bioterrorist events,” the expert added.

He also reminded that many terrorist organizations, including the Japanese group “Aum Shinrikyo” and Al-Quaeda, have shown an interest in bioterrorism.

“I suspect that, in the future, as the technical work becomes easier, and terrorist groups find the conventional attacks (horrific as they are) become more expected and less dramatic, terrorists may begin experimenting with new and more esoteric methods, such as bioterrorism,” the professor presumed.

According to David Spiegel, Willson Professor in the School of Medicine, Associate Chair of Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine, one of the major concerns about bioterrorism is its relative nonspecificity.

“It may be a restraining influence, as was the case with mustard gas in WWI – the clouds were as likely to blow back on the Germans as they were to injure or kill Allied soldiers. However, there is more danger from smaller groups that are more concerned with inflicting damage than protecting themselves – “suicide bombers,” the expert explained.

In his opinion, many biological weapons do not require the large, complex, and expensive delivery systems that conventional weapons do, making it easier for small groups of terrorists to deploy them.

“Knowledge is power, but also danger. We need to guard against terrorism, and also build a world where everyone has enough stake in the future that the motivation for terrorism is reduced,” David Spiegel concluded.

Biological weapons are pathogenic microorganisms or their spores, viruses, bacterial toxins, infected people and animals, as well as their means of delivery, that are used to kill or incapacitate humans, animals or plants as an act of war. It is s a weapon of mass destruction. The Geneva Protocol of 1925 prohibited the use of chemical weapons and biological weapons.

Destructive effect of biological weapons is based primarily on the use of disease-causing properties of pathogenic microorganisms and toxic products of their life.

Modern biological weapons include a mixture of viruses and bacterial spores to increase the likelihood of deaths. The strains that are not transmitted from person to person are usually used to geographically locate their impact and avoid undesirable losses of own forces
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