How to Understand the Biological Weapons Threat

This is the first of a three-part series examining the threat biological weapons pose to hazmat teams

By Kevin Ryan

Biological weapons continue to be a threat in the United States and abroad. They form a subset of a larger class of weapons sometimes referred to as unconventional weapons or weapons of mass destruction, which also includes chemical, nuclear and radiological weapons.

This form of warfare is nothing new. Bioweapons use goes back nearly 1,000 years.

In 1155, Emperor Barbarossa poisoned water wells with human bodies in Tortona, Italy. According to Britannica, the Mongols catapulted plague-infected bodies over the walls of the Black Sea port of what is now Feodosiya, Ukraine in 1347. Russian troops did much the same in 1710 when trapped by Swedish troops. And in 1763 the British gave smallpox-infested blankets to Native Americans to put down an uprising near Pittsburgh, which set off an epidemic.

In the first half of the twentieth century, German agents came to the United States and infected horses and other animals destined to join the European war effort during WWI. That and other incidents in part led to the 1925 Geneva Protocol banning biological and chemical weapons.

Yet a little more than 10 years after that treaty, the Japanese violated it by using such weapons against China in WWII and by using human subjects for bioweapons testing. A more recent example was the anthrax attacks of 2001. Several anthrax-laced letters were sent to various VIPs including then-Senator Tom Daschle — those attacks triggered a spate of hoax mailings that kept hazmat teams running.

Also Read: Meet Lt Col Piotr Wachna, a Polish chemical weapons expert, at the center of the COVID-19 fight

Hazmat responders in a small community might think this problem could not affect them. In reality, any community may be confronted with this problem. For example, a 70-year-old woman in Shelburne, Vt. attempted to use ricin to poison people at an upscale senior village in 2017. She stated she wanted to test the effectiveness of her concoction by putting it in the food and drink of other residents.

Shelburne has a population of approximately 7,700. A jurisdiction this size probably does not have the resources to handle an incident of this nature. County, state and federal resources would have to be called in to assist. Resource assistance could include law enforcement for investigation and the health department to ascertain the extent of the contamination, as was the case in Shelburne.

So what defines a biological attack?

The Department of Homeland Security says a biological attack is the intentional release of a pathogen (disease-causing agent) or biotoxin (poisonous substance produced by a living organism) against humans, plants or animals. An attack against people could be used to cause illness, death, fear, societal disruption and economic damage. An attack on agricultural plants and animals would primarily cause economic damage, loss of confidence in the food supply and possible loss of life.

DHS also distinguishes between two types of biological agents.

The first is transmissible agents that spread from person to person (like smallpox or Ebola) or from animal to animal, such as foot-and-mouth disease.

The second are agents that may cause adverse effects in exposed individuals but do not make those individuals contagious to others, like anthrax or botulinum toxin.

Biowarfare agents are broken down into pathogens and toxins.

Pathogens are viruses or bacteria that cause disease to their host, with the severity of the symptoms called virulence. Bacteria are microscopic single-celled organisms lacking a distinct nucleus. A virus is an infectious agent of small size and simple composition that can multiply only in living cells of animals, plants or bacteria.

The main difference between the two is that viruses need a host of living cells to replicate. Once in the cell, viruses take over the cell mechanisms to reproduce. Bacteria, unlike viruses, do not need a host and can live inside or outside a body.

Flu is a virus. One of the body’s defense mechanisms is to increase body temperature to make the environment inhospitable for the invading virus. Anthrax is a bacteria. Bacillus anthracis is the causative agent for the disease-causing bacteria. Each pathogen uses different mechanisms to invade a foreign body.

Toxins are substances created by plants and animals that are poisonous to humans. Toxins may also include some medicines that are helpful in small doses, but poisonous in large amounts. Toxins can be derived from bacteria, fungi, algae and plants. These are described by the CDC Lab Response to Toxins infographic.

Each hazmat team should know how to get their samples from emergency incidents into the Lab Response Network. The LRN ultimately can get samples to the CDC for evaluation.

The state lab for Maryland, for example, is in East Baltimore at the Johns Hopkins Hospital complex. Samples can be sent to the lab through various agencies that are a contact point for the LRN. CDC has a useful fact sheet on the LRN.

The CDC further defines bio-agents in three priority categories. It says the public health system and primary healthcare providers must be prepared to address various biological agents, including pathogens that are rarely seen in the United States.

Category A

High-priority agents include organisms that pose a risk to national security because they:

  • can be easily disseminated or transmitted from person to person,
  • result in high mortality rates and have the potential for major public health impact,
  • might cause public panic and social disruption, and
  • require special action for public health preparedness (example: anthrax, plague, smallpox).

Category B

Second highest priority agents include those that:

  • are moderately easy to disseminate,
  • result in moderate morbidity rates and low mortality rates, and
  • require specific enhancements of CDC’s diagnostic capacity and enhanced disease surveillance (example: glanders, Q fever, ricin toxin).

Category C

Third highest priority agents include emerging pathogens that could be engineered for mass dissemination in the future because of:

  • availability,
  • ease of production and dissemination, and
  • potential for high morbidity and mortality rates and major health impact (example: hantavirus, Nipah virus).

In addition, the CDC and USDA maintain the Federal Select Agent Program. FSAP regulates the possession, use and transfer of biological agents and toxins that may pose a severe threat to public, animal or plant health. Examples of these include the organisms that cause anthrax, smallpox, foot-and-mouth disease, as well as the toxin ricin.

Here’s a look at the program overview. And here’s a list of select agents.

For laboratory settings, CDC sets four levels of protections needed based on the agents being handled. Here’s a nice infographic explaining the four levels. And here’s a deeper dive into those levels.

Part II of this series will look at recognition of a biological attack.

About the Author

Kevin Ryan is a member of the Baltimore City Fire Department Hazmat Operations Office. He is a 30-year veteran of the fire service with 25 of those years as a hazmat responder; he is currently a Level 3 instructor. He has previously written the Buzz Blog for Hazmat Nation. He can be reached at [email protected] for additional information.

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