Bioterrorism, Public Health and the Law 
Law 801: Health Care Law Seminar
Professor Vernellia R. Randall

The Requirements to Produce Biological Agents by Non-State Groups


Lesson Schedule
00: Intro to the Course
01: Intro to the Problem
02: Public Health System
03: Real Threat?
04: Public Health Law
05: Disease-Reporting
06: Quarantine
07: Model Act
08: Military Presence
09: Health Law Revisited


excerpted from: Milton Leitenberg, An Assessment of the Biological Weapons Threat to the United States, "White Paper" prepared for the Conference on Emerging Threats Assessment. Biological Terrorism, at the Institute for Security Technology Studies, Dartmouth College, July 7-9, 2000.

There are five essential requirements that must be mastered in order to produce biological agents:

bulletOne must obtain the appropriate strain of the disease pathogen.
bulletOne must know how to handle them correctly.
bulletOne must know how to grow them in a way that will produce the appropriate characteristics.
bulletOne must know how to store them, and to scale-up production properly.
bulletOne must know how to disperse them properly.

Four of the five requirements are in the portion frequently dismissed as "easy." Some experts do stress that the last step, aerosolization to the appropriate particle size for efficient inhalation infection, does present difficulties, while suggesting that the first four steps are simple. That is clearly not correct. Instead of dealing with this subject by abstract pronouncements, as is customary and the more so the less initiated the commentator, it would be more useful to provide real examples from the experiences of several national biological weapons programs.

First, there is the problem of obtaining a strain of the organism in question that is useful for biological weapons purposes. Most natural forms of biological agents are not highly infectious, and it is not that easy to obtain the strains that are highly infectious. For example, in the course of the offensive phase of the US BW program, roughly 675 strains of Clostridium botulinum were gathered. More extensive laboratory research was carried out using about a dozen of these strains, and finally one strain that produced satisfactory titres of toxin regularly under production conditions was selected for weaponization purposes. Similarly for anthrax, the number of available strains is high and weaponization was carried out on only a few of these.

Secondly, even very practiced experts can run into significant problems. Dr. Jerzy Mierzejewski, the retired director of the Polish biological defense laboratories at Pulawy who spent his entire professional career working with Clostridium botulinum, plaintively expressed his persistent difficulties on working with the organism to participants at two NATO Advanced Research Workshops. One culture cycle would produce toxin that was lethal and a few months later the next would not, and so on over the years. Even variations in the growth parameters for non-pathogenic simulants could seriously degrade their intended performance. The British BW testing program used two common simulants, Bacillus globulii, and an E.Coli strain. It was discovered that even minor variations in their culturing parameters could seriously degrade their performance in aerosol dispersion tests.

As for more complicated integration of the entire process, another example is of value. Dr. William Patrick described the outcome of a study carried out recently at USAMRIID. A post-doctoral fellow was given the task of outlining how he would produce a mass casualty event using a designated organism that had been developed as a weapon in the pre-1969 US BW program Tularemia. He was given one year in which to complete his assignment. When the year was up and he presented his project design, it was found that it included three errors that would have prevented the effort from being successful had it be carried out. Quite unfortunately, Patrick has himself been responsible for publicly describing critical technical details which there is every reason to assume would not be known to uninitiated non-state or terrorist groups interested in producing or using biological agents.

At a meeting on "Bioterrorism in the United States" held on June 29-30 in Washington, DC, Jerome Hauer, former Director of the Office of Emergency Management for the City of New York, stressed that:

bullet"Most of the agents are not readily available,
bullet"Most of the agents are not easy to make, and
bullet"Most of the agents are not easy to disperse."

As regards aerosol dispersal in particular, Tucker and Sands write:

The capability to disperse microbes and toxins over a wide area as an inhalable aerosol the form best suited for inflicting mass casualties requires a delivery system whose development would outstrip the technical capabilities of all but the most sophisticated terrorists. Not only is the dissemination process for biological agents inherently complex, requiring specialized equipment and expertise, but effective dispersal is easily disrupted by environmental and meteorological conditions.

At the end of World War II, the US BW program at Fort Detrick comprised some 250 buildings and employed approximately 3,400 people. The number of person-years that were required to weaponize as "simple" an agent as botulinum toxin, together with access to highly qualified personnel, excellent facilities, and extensive testing ranges is quite significant.

Dr. Ken Alibek has given the figure of a combined total of 60,000 people (at all levels of technical expertise, from service personnel to scientists) in all of the multiple segments of the former USSRs BW program: Ministry of Defense, Biopreparat, Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Health and so on. Senior scientists may have accounted for less than 5 percent of this total, and in seminars, Dr. Alibek has stated that although there were many experts that knew the precise details of an individual stage of the research or production process, there were perhaps only 100 individuals who knew how to take a particular organism that the USSR had weaponized through all its stages from beginning to end in the production process.

The Iraqi BW program began in 1974 or earlier, and between 1979 and 1985 a large number of their BW research staff were sent overseas for advanced study and degrees because it was apparent that work was not progressing and that they were not sufficiently trained and qualified. When the 200-300 BW researchers went back to work, they were supported by a separate contingent of over 1,000 technical people in the Iraqi chemical weapons program who carried out the BW testing program. The Iraqi BW program consumed upwards of $100 million.

One only has to compare the above with some of the descriptions of the supposed ease in producing biological agents that have been common in recent years. One author wrote that "manufacturing a lethal bacterial disease agent requires little more than chicken soup, a flat whiskey bottle, and an available source of seed culture." Another wrote that producing biological weapons was "...about as complicated as manufacturing beer and less dangerous than refining heroin." In seminar presentations a few years ago, former CIA Director James Woolsey would claim that "a B-plus high school chemistry student" could produce biological agents, and at a January 2000 meeting described producing biological agents as being "about as difficult as producing beer." In her book, The Ultimate Terrorist, Jessica Stern quotes:

Kathleen Bailey [who], after interviewing professors, graduate students, and pharmaceutical manufacturers, concluded that several biologists with only $10,000 worth of equipment could produce a significant quantity of biological agent.

One can also compare these rather common and gross exaggerations with the real-world experience of the Aum Shinrikyo group:

bulletThey had appropriate equipment (even more than was necessary).
bulletThey used commercial front companies to buy the equipment.
bulletThey may have spent in the range of $10 million in their effort to produce biological agents.
bulletSeveral of the individuals involved had post-graduate degrees.
bulletThey had gathered a research library.
bulletThey had sufficient time four years for their attempts.
bulletThey had attempted to purchase expertise in Russia and to obtain or purchase disease strains in Japan.

However, they failed in their efforts to produce either of two biological agents.

Related Pages:
Home ] Up ] Bioterroism and Public Health ] Biological Agents ] Dual Use or Poor Excuse? ] CDC Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response ] Will Bioterrorism Reshape Global Public Health? ] Bioterrorism - A Renewed Public Health Threat ] A Clear and Present Danger? ] Deaths and Illness--A Comparative Analysis ] [ The Requirements to Produce Biological Agents by Non-State Groups ] Potential of Use of Biological Weapons in the United States ] WHO Recommendations for Dealing with Bioterrorism ] Emerging Infectious Disease and Public Health (pdf) ] Facts about Biological Agents ]
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Home ] Syllabus ] Introduction to the Course ] Introduction to the Problem ] Public Health System ] Is Bioterrorism a Real Threat? ] Public Health Law and Bioterrorism ] Disease Reporting and Police Powers ] Quarantine and Police Powers ] Model State Public Health Law ] Military Presence and Public Health ] Public Health Law - Revisited ]
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