There’s been quite a bit of discussion in the news lately about how safe we are (or aren’t) in the light of the recent terror arrests in the UK. As we approach the 5-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, many changes have been made in the name of protecting us from terrorism. Some of them, including adding additional first responders and public health workers (and preparing them for a variety of emergency situations) are good in theory, but have been sorely underfunded. Other measures, unfortunately, are little more than theater as Revere suggests, including the current focus on your shampoo as a potential weapon of mass destruction.
No matter what your political leanings, it benefits us all to pay attention to what actually works to keep us safer, and not forget about issues that have been largely dropped over the past 5 years. One of these is the identification of the source of the post-9/11 anthrax attacks.
A summary of the 2001 anthrax attacks can be found here. In a nutshell, envelopes containing anthrax were sent to a number of news organizations and senators, resulting in 22 cases of anthrax and 5 deaths.
From reports, it appears that the anthrax in all the letters was not of the same grade. The anthrax bacterium (Bacillus anthracis) forms hardy spores when deprived of nutrients. These can last in the environment for an extremely long amount of time, until an unsuspecting host happens upon them, whereby they germinate and begin to multiply. This can lead to different forms of the disease, depending on how the bacterium enters the host. Gastrointestinal anthrax occurs from ingestion of the bacterial spores; cutaneous anthrax occurs due to contact of the spores with the skin, and inhalational, which is the deadliest form and occurs when the spores are inhaled and germinate in the lungs. All of those who died had the inhalational form of the disease.
The investigation into who carried out the attacks has, from all outward appearances, been stalled now for several years. I wrote a post a year ago discussing how the genetic fingerprint of the anthrax can–and is–being used in the investigation of its origins, but that can only take us so far. It was also reported that in at least some of the envelopes, the bacterial spores were very finely processed, and potentially coated with an agent that made them more likely to aerosolize upon exposure. This makes them more deadly, as the spores treated in this fashion are more likely to be breathed deep into the lungs and cause the inhalational form of the disease. The small, finely milled spores can also disseminate farther through the air and potentially spread to more victims.
Additionally, anthrax could potentially be manipulated by anyone with some basic expertise in molecular biology. For example, research has shown that the number of copies of a bacterial plasmid can affect bacterial virulence, particularly in certain lineages of the bacterium, possibly by increasing production of the bacterial capsule (the slimy outer coating that aids in resistance to phagocytosis, or “eating” of the bacteria by cells of our immune system. Theoretically, a terrorist could increase the number of plasmids in a strain, making it more virulent. Additionally, they could engineer antibiotic resistance into the strain, making traditional treatments ineffective. None of this appears to have been used in the bacteria released in 2001, but we really don’t know the limits of what could be done; as recent events have shown, potential terrorists can be very creative, and a step ahead of our band-aid measures.
So, what we have is this. Someone who had access to anthrax, and the know-how to grow it up and refine it so that it would be highly deadly, remains at large. The letters were mailed from Trenton, New Jersey, so either that person lives in the country or at least had the ability to enter our borders. And, as far as we can tell, s/he (or, potentially, they) are still out there somewhere. In the meantime, a number of shortsighted approaches to security have been applied, such as this week’s limitation on fluids in carry-on. As pointed out by Bruce Schneier,
Banning box cutters since 9/11, or taking off our shoes since Richard Reid, has not made us any safer. And a long-term prohibition against liquid carry-ons won’t make us safer, either. It’s not just that there are ways around the rules, it’s that focusing on tactics is a losing proposition.
We need a severe overhaul, and we need to keep the unsolved anthrax attacks in the public eye. Someone out there has the technology to kill us–potentially, lots of us. We don’t know when, where, or if he’ll strike again, but the answer to the problem certainly isn’t to react in a knee-jerk fashion. Instead of throwing a lot of money at problems without any rational underpinning for how it should be spent, we need to improve infrastructure–especially law enforcement and other emergency responders and public health–so that we can respond in a concerted and logical manner to threats like this.
Image from http://img.search.com/0/0a/300px-Daschle_letter.jpg