Australia has opened a new National Center for Bio-Security to build its defenses against infectious diseases and biological weapons. Medical experts say it will help protect the country from threats such as SARS and bird flu as well as attacks by terrorists or rogue scientists. From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports.
The new bio-security center adds another layer to Australia's counterterrorism defenses. Its researchers will look at ways to combat biological warfare, naturally occurring diseases and the theft or misuse of sensitive research on micro-organisms. In addition, they will study the dangers posed by synthetic biology, where a virus or bacteria can be created from scratch.
The center's work will concentrate on 22 bacteria, viruses and poisons that the Australian government considers "agents of concern". They include anthrax, plague, smallpox and the toxin that causes botulism.
Experts fear diseases could be used in conflict
The facility's co-director, Dr. Christian Enemark, says researchers will be on the frontline of efforts to prevent the use of such potentially devastating diseases in conflict.
"It is still very difficult to assess the likelihood of a biological attack," he said, "but it's important to bear in mind that such an attack would be invisible and insidious and there are some who would argue that a terrorist attack has much more impact if it is physical and extremely visible. So, that leads me to suggest that conventional bombings and aircraft hijackings are likely to remain the terrorist tactics of choice but we should not blind ourselves to the possibility that biological agents might be used as a tool for terror."
The Australian government says the risk of a biological attack in the country is low and lists the current threat level as "medium".
Terrorists could deliberately spread diseases
But Peter Curson, a professor of population and security at the University of Sydney, says that diseases such as dengue fever, which is transmitted by mosquitoes, could be deliberately spread.
"It would be quite easy, for example, to get an infected person to visit a place like Australia, wander around, be perhaps bitten by a local mosquito and from that you might get a huge epidemic," he noted. "It's not a great extension of reality to suggest that could actually be used in a concentrated, deliberate way."
Australia has suffered serious outbreaks of infectious diseases in the past. In 1925, there were 600,000 reported cases of dengue fever.
Bio-Security center is a joint venture
The new bio-security unit is a joint venture between the Australian National University in Canberra and the University of Sydney. It will tap into the expertise of 50 researchers from a range of disciplines, whose job is to provide "independent and fearless" advice to politicians about biological security.
Scientists at the new center also will seek to bolster Australia's defenses against infectious diseases such as SARS - severe acute respiratory syndrome.
Dr. Enemark says the first SARS outbreak in Asia in 2003 caused massive problems, in large part because so little was known about the virus. To stop its spread, governments closed schools, many advised their citizens to avoid traveling and many social activities were canceled.
"Fewer than 800 people died of SARS out of just over 8,000 cases and yet there was a massive cost the Southeast Asian economy," he noted. "In the second quarter of 2003 alone there was a cost to East Asia of $60 billion. This demonstrates that disease can generate damage not just because it's killing people and making them ill, but because of the anxiety that can surround certain kinds of disease."
Embittered scientists could also pose threat
Australia has never suffered a direct terrorist attack. However, the bombings on the Indonesian holiday island of Bali in 2002, which killed 202 people, including 88 Australians, brought the continent to the frontline of international terrorism and its people were gripped by a sense of fear and vulnerability.
Security experts think the threat of terrorism is more likely to come from disaffected home-grown groups, such as the six Muslim men convicted this week for their part in a plot to bomb parts of Melbourne.
Bio-security specialists say that embittered scientists could pose also a threat, along with other radical groups, and that Australia must remain vigilant.
Australia's federal government is conducting a review of its bio-security defenses and its findings are to be released next month.