In the wake of the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history, the threat of a new enemy is on the horizon.
This enemy, however, thrives not on physical assault, but instead on its invisibility. Biological and chemical warfare spread silently in the air or from ordinary human contact, and that is what makes them such valid threats.
The threat these weapons pose to our nation is real, but just how real is it?
“It is hard to assess the actual threat right now,” said Jacqueline Cattani, director for the USF Center for Biological Defense. “Three weeks ago, how real was the threat of terrorists crashing two planes into the World Trade Center?”
This sentiment is being addressed across the nation by government agencies and officials beginning a wealth of funding and research into the area of biological and chemical technologies alike. USF is no exception to the trend in preparation. At the end of September, the Center for Biological Defense was awarded a $4 million grant to encourage further research in the field.
“This has become a big concern because all the pieces are there for a biological or chemical weapon assault,” Cattani said. “And since they attacked once on a physical basis, all the attention is now focused on security. If there were to be another attack, they would look for something that will surprise us.”
Biological and chemical weapons are not one and the same. A biological organism, such as smallpox, spreads over a period of time as a result of people infecting one another. It will continue to spread as far as people carry it ? it has no limits. On the other hand, a chemical organism, like nerve gas, is instantaneous and can only infect in the immediate vicinity where the chemical was dispersed.
There are other significant differences that must be addressed in order to understand each threat.
Chemical weapons, unlike biological, do not have to be kept alive, therefore they are easier to produce than biological organisms.
“You definitely do not need highly skilled people to make chemical weapons,” Cattani said.
Cattani also said that chemical weapons are not effective on large numbers of people because they are not contagious and have a high dependency on ideal conditions in order to cause any significant damage.
According to Time magazine, the most devastating chemical attack ever occurred in Japan in 1995 by a group of terrorists that unleashed small containers of sarin gas in a subway, leading to 12 deaths. In order to affect a mass amount of people, a terrorist organization would need a large sum of money and a way to transport huge amounts of the chemical.
It was evident that the government had taken notice of the threat of a massive chemical attack when it grounded crop-dusting planes early last week.
Biological weapons are a different problem than that of chemical agents. Biological agents, such as anthrax and smallpox, are living, contagious diseases that are spread by human interaction, and at an extremely high rate.
“In a biological attack, you won?t know it has happened until people start showing up in emergency rooms with similar symptoms,” said Cattani. “We won?t know until it becomes a full-blown outbreak.”
Government research has shown that the two most prevalent biological diseases, anthrax and smallpox, have a 90 percent and a 30 percent fatality rate, respectively.
The factor working against potential terrorists is the problem of keeping these diseases alive and well.
“It is not easy,” Cattani said. “The problem is much more complicated than just cost. They would have to raise the organism in a large enough, controlled environment. Then they would have to be able to transport the organism for dispersal without killing it.”
Cattani also said that the reason for this concern is the fact that the technology needed to make biological warfare a reality is readily available. There is only one hurdle that remains before a possible biological organism outbreak ? mass transport. And it is not yet known if the technological leap needed in order to transport enough of the organism to be subsequently released successfully into society has been made.
The terror across the country does not lie in the biological weapons themselves, but instead in the idea of the threat of said attacks becoming a reality.
“The greatest fear a biological war has going for it is simply the fear that it generates. We see this right now with people buying gas masks for preparation,” Cattani said.
This has resulted in a raised awareness throughout American communities. At USF the threat of biological and chemical warfare has one student, Woodrow Coleman, voicing an opinion that is being echoed throughout America.
“I am definitely scared of biological warfare,” he said. “But I believe in the United States, and I know we are a strong country. I think we have the technology and defense to stop that type of terrorist attack.”