Countering `The Poor Man's Nuclear Weapons'

The U.S. is getting serious about meeting the bio-warfare challenge

In October, 1995, a U.N. report charged Iraq with stockpiling tens of thousands of liters of deadly anthrax and botulinum cultures and other equally scary biological warfare agents. Saddam Hussein didn't use this horrific arsenal against U.S. troops. But if he had, would the troops have been ready?

"The conclusion in Congress is that the threat is there, but we're not adequately prepared to manage it or defend against it," says Javed Ali, a research associate at the Chemical & Biological Arms Control Institute, a nonprofit group in Alexandria, Va. Biological weapons were banned by the U.N in 1972, but they are spreading. Recent intelligence reports suggest that 17 countries might be developing biological weapons, including Iraq, Iran, Syria, China, and North Korea.

CHEAP AND POWERFUL. Biological warfare has been around since colonial times, when British soldiers in America reportedly used smallpox-infested blankets to reduce the Indian threat. Today's weapons include viruses and bacteria and the toxins they produce. But experts are increasingly concerned about genetically engineered "superbugs"--organisms made to be resistant to antibiotics or targeted to a particular population.

Experts are also worried about the spread of the weapons to terrorist groups. In July, 1995, the Japanese religious cult Aum Shinrikyo killed 12 people and injured 5,500 more by releasing the nerve gas sarin on a Tokyo subway. Aum Shinrikyo had also assembled stockpiles of anthrax. Also in 1995, an Ohio laboratory technician who belonged to a white supremacist group purchased three cultures of Yersinia pestis, the bacteria that causes bubonic plague, from a commercial supplier. Authorities were alerted only after he complained about how long his shipment was taking.

The general sentiment in the U.S. defense community has been that the stigma attached to bio-weapons is likely to limit their use. Richard J. Danzig, Under Secretary of the Navy, disagrees. "I know of no significant weaponry that has been developed and hasn't been used," he says.

The appeal of biological agents is that they are cheap and powerful. One hundred kilograms of anthrax spores is as deadly as a small nuclear weapon, says Joshua Lederberg, the former president of Rockefeller University in New York. But the biological agents would be 1 million times cheaper to produce and could be manufactured in a classroom-size facility. Equipment for making these weapons is used widely in the biotechnology industry and even in breweries.

Biological weapons "are the poor man's nuclear weapons," says Daniel Goure, deputy director for political-military studies at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington.

While the threat of biological weapons has grown, research on detection devices, protective suits, and antidotes to germ agents has lagged, experts say. During the gulf war, U.S. troops in Iraq depended on detectors that were rudimentary and had to wear stifling suits and face masks. We are "woefully unprepared to face these capabilities," says Goure.

LIFESAVING. With all this in mind, the military has committed more resources to building an effective defense against biological weapons. For the first time, researchers are offering some tangible new defensive options. The military research is likely to have a payoff for public health, too. Headway made in defense research could help doctors learn to treat bacteria resistant to antibiotics and frightening infectious agents such as ebola virus and the newly discovered deadly strain of E. coli. "We can save lives in between, while we wait for a biological attack," says Stephen S. Morse, director of a new $30 million Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) countermeasures program.

So far, work on countermeasures has primarily focused on the development of vaccines. Troops going to the Persian Gulf are now inoculated against anthrax with a series of six boosters. But developing new vaccines can take 10 to 20 years, and it would be impossible to protect troops against all bio-warfare agents, especially new genetically engineered organisms. DARPA's Morse and others are looking for generic defenses against pathogens. "We're not looking to undermine one specific organism, but to advance our knowledge of pathogenicity fundamentally," says Morse.

DARPA is reaching out to biotech outfits, big drugmakers, and academics. One scientist whose work interests the agency is Dr. Stanley Falkow, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University School of Medicine. Falkow's work centers on deciphering the way organisms cause disease. Falkow, along with others, discovered that so-called gram-negative bacteria such as those that cause bubonic plague, salmonella, and cholera all use a similar apparatus-- involving 14 or so genes--for delivering their toxic proteins into cells. With that in mind, B. Brett Finlay, a professor in the biotech lab at the University of British Columbia, already has some drug candidates that might disable this apparatus. "Instead of developing a defense against each biological agent," says Falkow, "you can protect against myriad insults."

Another goal for the DARPA program is figuring out ways to prevent infection in the first place. Possible grant recipients include researchers working on new materials for making lightweight suits that act as barriers against pathogens without disabling soldiers. Others are developing lotions for the skin or inhalants that would deactivate bio-warfare agents before they could cause disease.

Dr. James Baker, head of allergy and immunology at the University of Michigan, is studying tiny lipid balls designed to fuse with the membranes of bacteria and viruses and dissolve the organisms. Baker, who is working on this technology with a company called Novavax Inc. in Columbia, Md., says the lipids kill pathogens in 10 minutes in a test tube--and remain potent for hours.

"CELLULAR ENGINEERING." In a more long-range approach, Baker is also developing these lipid balls to deliver genetic material to cells in the skin and air passages that will make them immune to infection. He calls the process "cellular engineering." In one scheme, the lipids are used to deliver genes that would instruct cells to shut down the production of viral receptors, or virus docking sites, and prevent pathogens from getting into the cells. Baker imagines using such countermeasures first in areas experiencing serious cholera outbreaks or other infectious disease emergencies.

Ultimately, the best defense against biological weapons will be preventing their use in the first place. Clearly, that would involve strengthening treaty compliance. But Danzig also talks about "creating an integrated program between the military and public health." That would include better surveillance of natural epidemics and bio-warfare agents and stepped-up tracking of laboratory samples of infectious agents. These measures--along with the development of effective antidotes--could help shut the door on biological weapons for good.

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