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Threat of bioterrorism- real or imagined?

Society For General Microbiology : 08 April, 2003  (Company News)
Until a few years ago the threat to use microbes as biological weapons was practically ignored by doctors and scientists working in medicine and public health. Today there is every reason to believe that the threat of bioterrorism is not only real but is growing, according to Washington based public health expert Professor Donald Henderson, speaking in an invited lecture at the Society for General Microbiology's Spring Meeting in Edinburgh.
'The belief was that to use such weapons would transgress a moral barrier not breached since World War II,' says Professor Henderson, director of the Hopkins Centre for Civilian Biodefense Strategies. 'People were confident that it was beyond the capability of most terrorists to produce and spread organisms; and many considered the prospects of using biological weapons to be as unthinkable as the concept of a nuclear war. The 1973 Biological Weapons Convention, signed by most nations, including the Soviet Union and Iraq, offered an added level of assurance.'

According to Professor Henderson, events within the past decade have shown this confidence to be without foundation. In 1992 the Soviet Union officially admitted breaching the 1973 Convention with a biological weapons programme as large as its nuclear initiative, involving more than 60,000 scientists. Many of these biologists are now working in other countries. Iraq also had an active programme, primarily focusing on anthrax but using other organisms as well. A previously unknown apocalyptic religious group in Japan also demonstrated its ability to grow large quantities of organisms, causing massive casualties.

The spread of anthrax through the United States Postal Service in October 2001 vividly dramatized the potential problem. An estimated ten grammes of anthrax powder in three envelopes infected 22 people, killing five. The response shut down an important segment of the postal system. Tens of thousands of potentially dangerous specimens were processed in the US and other countries, and part of the Senate of the United States had to be evacuated. Throughout the country people were afraid to open their mail.

'With rapidly growing competence in biotechnology throughout the world, active terrorist groups who have no apparent moral scruples, and instructions on how to turn living microbes into weapons now available on the internet,' says Professor Henderson, 'there is every reason to believe that the threat of bioterrorism is not only real but that it is growing and predictably, will be with us for a very long time.'
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