Preventing Catastrophic Consequences of Bioterrorism in an Urban Setting
Vladimir G. Ivkov*and Yevgeny A. Permyakov
Russian Academy of Sciences Pushchino Science Center
Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Biological Instrument Development
Potentially catastrophic consequences of acts of bioterrorism in urban settings are associated both with the particular ways in which modern megacities function and with the unique characteristics of the potential bioagents themselves. The special features of the city include many locations where people congregate, sizable transport flows, an integrated infractructure, numerous food distribution channels, and the complexity of managing the behavior of the population. The special features of bioagents include ease of dissemination, potential for covert use, presence of a latency period before their use is discovered, potential for person-to-person transmission, potential for the use of other organisms as vectors (insects, rats, and so forth), difficulty of detection and identification because of their extremely low effective concentrations, and the powerful psychological effect of bioterrorism itself.
Preventing acts of bioterrorism is extremely difficult and sometimes simply impossible; therefore, crucially significant factors include early detection, anticipation of potential scenarios of use, education of the public, advance planning to shape their behavior, and a clear-cut system for managing the situation with the help of educated, trained, and well-protected personnel.
Defining potential scenarios and training to respond to them is essential for the adequate functioning of the management system. This includes staff training (gaming), analysis of existing organizational response capabilities, identification of the most vulnerable elements in the protection system, and planning of prevention and suppression measures.
The most vulnerable points in a large city include the subway system, shopping centers, stadiums, mass gatherings at holidays and festivals, and grocery stores. Terrorist acts could lead to massive casualties because the use of a bioagent could go unnoticed during its entire latency period (usually 7–14 days).
Example 1: Just 1 g of anthrax spores represents 10 million lethal doses. Unless antibiotics are administered before the first symptoms appear, the mortality rate from anthrax could reach 85–90 percent. The simultaneous release of anthrax in several subway stations (perhaps by throwing a packet of spores in the path of a train arriving in the station), further dispersed with the aid of air currents produced by the movement of the trains, could under conditions existing in Moscow lead to the infection of several million people. Furthermore, taking into account the flow of passengers through Moscow to other regions, infected individuals would simultaneously appear at the end of the latency period in almost all regions of Russia. The result would be a general catastrophe, panic, and great difficulty in determining the source of the infection. Given current capabilities for detecting pathogens in air samples, such a scenario is completely possible.
Example 2: Anthrax spores could be dispersed using flares or fireworks set off during crowded holiday events (at stadiums, on New Year’s Eve, at public festivals, and so forth). Such fireworks could also be set off on the roofs of tall buildings with the help of remote-control devices. To prevent such occurrences, the use of low-temperature explosive devices (fireworks and flares) by private individuals could be banned, and much tighter controls on the organization of large public events could be instituted.
Example 3: Let us reconsider the situation involving the use of anthrax spores, as this bioagent is the most accessible to potential terrorists and does not require complex technologies for acquisition and use. In this case, the scenario would involve the use of pilotless aircraft. The simplest would be helium-filled balloons, which are common at all public festivals. A floating balloon with a toy dangling from it would not attract anyone’s suspicions; meanwhile, this “toy” could be a container dispersing spores. Taking into account wind direction, such a delivery device could infect tens of thousands of people (at stadiums, squares, festivals, amusement parks, and so forth), and the individual committing this terrorist act would face no risk in doing so.
Even these very simple examples demonstrate how vulnerable the modern city is. It is clear that even if the source and transmission path of the infection are discovered, decontamination measures (cleaning of the subway or parts of the city) could paralyze the operation of the city’s infrastructure for a long time.
In addition to the creation of possible attack scenarios, systems for the early detection of the most likely dangerous bioagents will become a very important element in the system for countering bioterrorism. Critical characteristics of such systems include sensitivity, processing time, and reliability (absence of false positive signals), as well as the number of agents that can be identified. The need for widespread utilization of such devices requires that they must be capable of
automatic operation. However, such warning devices will never be absolutely reliable; therefore, it is important to develop methods for confirming the identification of bioagents. One example of such methods is the molecular colony method (solid-state PCR [polymerase chain reaction] identification method) developed by the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) Institute of Protein at the RAS Pushchino Science Center. During a visit by our American colleagues to Pushchino, the inventor of the method, RAS corresponding member Aleksandr B. Chetverin, clearly demonstrated its capabilities and advantages.
The development and production of detection and identification devices for Russia could be organized at the RAS Institute of Biological Instrument Development (IBI) at the Pushchino Science Center. IBI was established in May 1994 on the basis of the Biopribor Research and Production Association (the former Special Design Bureau for Biological Instrument Development, which was founded in 1965). Along with other RAS institutes, IBI is part of the RAS Pushchino Science Center (Moscow Oblast, Russia).
In the years since its founding, the organization has amassed substantial scientific, technical, and production potential. Since 1965 the organization has developed more than 200 new scientific devices and pieces of equipment for both unique and routine research purposes, and about 4,000 devices have been shipped to institutes in Russia and abroad.
The main areas of scientific research and experimental design work at IBI include
devices for studying the thermodynamic properties of biological systems (differential adiabatic scanning and titrating microcalorimeters, viscosimeters, densimeters)
spectral and optical devices and equipment for the visible and ultraviolet spectral ranges, including broad-range spectrofluorimeters and spectrophotometers, photometers for immunological research, optical detectors for chromatography, interference filters, and quartz and glass cuvettes
equipment for culturing microorganisms
devices and equipment for biochemical research (trace DNA amplifiers, peptide synthesizers, chromatography and electrophoresis equipment, lyophilizer freeze-dryers and vats, membrane and peristaltic pumps, micropipettes, shakers, thermostats, sterilizers, chemical and biological test systems, and so forth)
equipment for cell research, including micromanipulators, equipment for cell microsurgery, and equipment for electrophysiological research
equipment for the automation of biological experiments (electronic systems for the collection, processing, and visualization of experimental data, as well as systems for the electronic control of biological experiments)
devices and equipment for energy conservation (frequency regulators, automatic control switches for luminescent bulbs) and resource conservation (carbon extraction furnaces, equipment for the extraction of flavonoids)
The scientific and production potential of IBI can also be brought to bear in the development and production of devices and equipment for combating bioterrorism.
It is clear that if terrorist acts involving the use of biological weapons are carried out successfully, it will remove the psychological barrier that currently keeps them from being used throughout the world, and especially against such countries as the United States and Russia, by various extremist and separatist organizations. For this reason, it is extremely appropriate and mutually beneficial that we should take joint steps aimed at creating a protection system that would, if not prevent the use of biological weapons, make the efforts of bioterrorists ineffective.
Taking into account U.S. successes in developing systems for detecting and identifying potential bioagents as well as the enduring potential of Russian scientists, such a joint project at the RAS Pushchino Science Center (including the capabilities available at the State Research Center for Applied Microbiology in Obolensk) could play a substantial role in the creation of an international system to provide protection against biological terrorism.