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Bio-Terrorism: Risks and Measures - 2001-09-26

The terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington D.C. have left many people worrying whether another attack with biological weapons this time could be coming. Mr. John Parachini, a fellow on Terrorism and Non-proliferation Issues at the federally funded RAND Corporation (a think tank in Washington D.C.) talks with VOA's Penelope Poulou about such a possibility.

Poulou: Mr. Parachini, can you please tell me what is bio-terrorism?
Parachini: Bio-terrorism is the use of disease and toxins to sicken and eventually kill people or incapacitate them. I think such attacks by terrorists are of low probability although, given that they may have high consequences we need to take some measures to detect such attacks early and address the consequences promptly.

Poulou: You mention that it is of low probability; why is it of low probability?
Parachini: Because it is difficult to acquire these materials, they are difficult to handle, they are difficult to weaponize and they are difficult to deliver to a target. There are other alternatives that they can more readily pursue and as we saw in the attacks of September 11, terrorists essentially used an ordinary means of modern transportation and turned it into a missile that was laden with fuel.

Poulou: On the other hand, if we are dealing with the ability to spread a disease like the Plague or like Anthrax, or like Botulism or Smallpox, these type of diseases could kill millions of people instead of few thousands.
Parachini: Some could. But, it's always in the conditional. It's possible. But it may not necessarily be likely or indeed the case. Some instances of biological agents have been used and only a few people have been incapacitated or killed.

Poulou: Does this have to do with the fact that we have vaccines and antibiotics that can combat such diseases?
Parachini: Well, one thing would be improving our public health system to address emerging infectious diseases, which are naturally occurring, can indeed give us capabilities that are valuable in the unlikely and low probability event that a terrorist actually uses a biological agent.

Poulou: What other forms of prevention can we employ?
Parachini: Well, most important is, we need to make both a national and an international effort to improve the ability to detect emerging infectious diseases. This also can be very valuable in helping us determine whether or not it is a natural outbreak or an intentional one.

Poulou: Is it possible to produce more vaccines in a shorter period of time?
Parachini: Well, there is currently an extensive research and development effort going on with the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control on the Smallpox vaccine. But, Smallpox as a possible biological agent to be used by terrorists, is I think quite unlikely given that we believe that stocks of Smallpox are only at a research facility in Russia and at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. Now, some people have alleged that other nation states may have retained some Smallpox stocks. But, these are allegations that have not been proven in the public domain, and if they did, they would be very few. So, there are other, naturally occurring diseases that are much more likely and probably much easier to acquire than Smallpox.

Poulou: Such as what, for example?
Parachini: Well, there are Anthrax outbreaks regularly around the globe because it is a naturally occurring disease. Now, Anthrax is not a contagious agent but it is very deadly and it affects livestock and it occurs around the world. From time to time there are limited outbreaks of plague, which is contagious, which can be a problem. But, today there really has not been a use in the modern period, in the post World War II period of plague for intentional and pernicious purposes.

Poulou: Out of all this havoc and mayhem, do you think that we are going to be more prepared in the future?
Parachini: There is no doubt that this has raised the profile of a variety of different tools that can be used to counter terrorism.

Poulou: Thank you very much, Mr. Parachini.
Parachini: I'm very glad to speak with you.

John Parachini is an expert on Terrorism and Nonproliferation issues at the federally funded RAND Corporation in Washington D.C.