25 Questions for Eric Croddy, author of "Chemical and Biological Warfare"

 

Eric Croddy is author of  "CHEMICAL AND BIOLOGICAL WARFARE": A Comprehensive Survey for Concerned Citizens. For review and further information on his book, ENTER HERE.

1. At one point in your book, you say the following: "While it's true we have to think about clouds of anthrax or mists of sarin, it's just as urgent that we pay attention to that large truck parked in a suspicious spot…" Does this mean you're more concerned with attacks using conventional weapons than you are with chemical and biological attacks?

Absolutely. Of course we have to be concerned about chemical and biological attacks, but if we've learned anything about warfare-and for that matter terrorism-it is that so-called "conventional" weapons-bullets, explosives, and incendiary agents-are still the most widely used tools for causing death and injury. In fact, in the introduction to my book, I refer to the genocidal wars in Rwanda, where close to a million were slaughtered, and by and large the murder weapon was the machete. And even in the horrific September 11 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, the instruments of mass murder were not chemical or biological agents.

2. Are you saying, then, that we don't have to fear a mass attack with, say, anthrax?

I wouldn't say we have nothing to fear. We have more than enough to fear. But I suppose one of my goals is not to let this fear get the better of us. In the case of anthrax attacks, this means understanding that a large-scale attack, say, one that covers a large city or region, is highly unlikely. An attack on a smaller scale, which in fact we have probably already seen in the Senate office building and in several media offices, is more likely. And while these smaller attacks were certainly outrageous, and certainly horrible for those killed, we should keep in mind that in terms of public health response, in terms of the number of people likely to be made ill, we are much better prepared to respond to and to limit casualties in smaller, discrete attacks.

3. Please explain this in a little more detail. Why is a mass attack so much less likely? Is it a matter of the difficulty of acquiring-getting hold of-anthrax that's suitable for use as a weapon?

That's certainly part of the reason, although I have to say I was a little taken aback by what appears to be the "quality," if you can use that word, of the anthrax agent that was used in these attacks. Someone, somehow, has access to what appears to be a high-grade and well-weaponized stock of anthrax spores. The problem faced by the terrorist or terrorists who did this, however, is this: Even if they have a large quantity of this material, and even if they are able to store it in such a way that it stays dry and suitable for dispersal over a wide area, they still have the problem of actually delivering the stuff. We all, of course, have the image of a cloud of spores descending, say, on greater Los Angeles, or downtown Miami. A couple of grams of high-grade weaponized anthrax could, theoretically, infect half a million and kill hundreds of thousands. A scary image, to be sure. But in order for such a cloud of agent to have this effect, it would have to be dispersed "perfectly" over the target population. Rain would present a problem. Winds would present a bigger problem. Even intense sunlight would have a negative effect on the lethality of the agent. All of these factors would have to be just right for the attack to succeed on any scale.

4. So we're not immune to a mass attack, but in general mass attacks are unlikely?

I'd be a fool to say that a mass attack absolutely won't happen. But if I accomplish nothing else with this book, I hope to make people a little less terrified, and a little more realistic in their assessment of what the risks are. A mass attack is highly unlikely. We need to be vigilant. We need to prepare for attacks. We need to do a thousand and one things, but being in a constant state of terror is not one of them. As a lot of people have said, if we live in unending terror, then the terrorists have achieved a kind of victory.

5. Talk for a moment, then, about the attacks that we saw in the month following September 11, which for now seem to have subsided. Are we likely to see more of these, and if we are, is there much we can do about them?

It's interesting that the attacks were all essentially indoors-or at least that's what it now seems like. In this sense, the terrorists who sent the mail knew what they were doing. It's also interesting that the delivery device-an envelope, which was either opened, or that was compressed by sorting machinery in a postal facility-proved to be fairly effective. Did the senders of these envelopes-the terrorists, because that is what they are-plan out their attacks this way? Did they intend to injure and kill postal workers as well as the addressees? Although we've been frustrated so far in locating and arresting the perpetrators, these are some of the questions we will want to have answered. As to whether we will see more of them-obviously I cannot say. But if we see any attacks, they are most likely to be like these-sporadic, relatively small, low-tech (though still effective) in their delivery and dispersal schemes.

6. Which chemical and biological agents are we as a country best prepared to deal with? And which are we least prepared for?

Arguably, those of us in the general public, as opposed to the military, are not equipped to deal with most CBW agents. We have a lot of catching up to do. But considering the overall low risk we face, this should not paralyze us with fear. For one thing, a lot of health professionals in the United States already have experience with or are quickly getting up to speed on identifying the symptoms of people who have suffered a chemical or biological attack. In terms of chemical attacks, for example, poison control workers and emergency physicians are already familiar with the signs of cyanide intoxication and how to deal with it. And doubtless emergency medical workers are also likely to be getting up to speed in this area. Then there is the matter of previous experience, even if it is not directly related to attacks with chemical and biological agents. For example, in Japan in 1995, the Aum Shinrikyo cult used sarin nerve agent in an attack on the Tokyo subway. Almost immediately, Japanese physicians on the scene noted patients having symptoms typical of organophosphate insecticide poisoning. Because this type of poisoning was a common problem in the 1960s and 1970s among farmers in Japan (and elsewhere), the doctors already had pretty good intuitions about effective remedies. So part of the reason I think people need to be as alarmed as the TV or radio may make them feel, is that we're learning, we're in a process of educating ourselves on a lot of fronts, and especially since 9/11 this whole self-educational process has been sped up a good deal.

7. How about examples of concrete steps that have already been taken? Can you tell us about any of these?

Of course the effort is ongoing. But I have heard, for example, that all New York City EMS ambulances are now equipped with nerve-agent antidotes. In small-scale releases of nerve agents such as sarin, many lives could be saved by first responders and physicians who know exactly what was happening, and who have the antidotes at hand. This is not to say that there would not be deaths and injuries, and this fact is certainly unsettling, but similar scenarios are posed by fires or other disasters, where casualties are expected almost as a matter of routine. Biological agents, too, are essentially public health problems-on a larger scale, perhaps, but still treatable. Smallpox is, in my view, extremely low on the likelihood-of-use scale but is nonetheless a possibility. The current civil defense program and public health programs in the United States calls for increasing the number of smallpox vaccine lots and developing new and safer forms of the vaccine in order to meet almost any possible future threat. And in the interim, we do have sufficient stocks of the older form of the vaccine in order to isolate, as much as possible, any outbreak that may occur.

8. Is it true that chemical and biological weapons are used so infrequently because they are so dangerous to the attacker, and not just the target?

This is generally true; many Iraqi soldiers were injured or killed during the Iran-Iraq War through the unsafe handling of their own chemical weapons. The CW agent VX, for example, is so toxic that the utmost care and refined technique would be required to use it in any form. And the potential BW agents tularemia and Lassa fever, caused by a bacterium and virus respectively, are notorious for causing laboratory-acquired infections, and would be very difficult to handle safely. So the inherent danger of these agents is, in and of itself, an obstacle to their wide use. On the other hand, some BW agents are not so difficult to handle. Anthrax bacteria, even in the form of weaponized spores, do not necessarily require the most extensive protective measures, and those handling the agent may be vaccinated against the disease. And then of course there is the matter of the willingness of an attacker to sacrifice himself: It's been a hallmark of terrorists, at least, that they are willing to die in the act of attacking an enemy. So in answer to the question does the inherent danger of these agents decrease the likelihood of their use, I have to say, unequivocally, yes and no.

9. Should I buy a gas mask? How long do gas masks last?

It all depends on the threat, and because the threat changes so much from agent to agent, I have to say that buying a protective mask is a waste of time for most of us. That said, I have to add that if there were an ongoing clearly identified BW threat, such as the potential anthrax threat facing postal workers, a surgeon's (or "procedure") mask is sufficient to filter out the particles that matter (those with diameters of 1 to10 microns). For chemical threats, the likelihood of having the right mask on hand at the right time makes this kind of preparation, in my view, impractical. For example, in the case of a cyanide gas attack, an exceptionally well-fitted and specialized filter protective mask is effective, but the filter must be of the right type and fresh to be worthwhile. And of course this mask would be of no use against agents like mustard and VX (blister and nerve agents, respectively), since they act through the skin. As to how long specific masks remain effective: In all honesty that is something I would rather not get into, since I am not an expert in the field, and in general my advice is that people should not go out and purchase masks, since there is little assurance that they will do any good in a particular attack anyway. There are just too many variables to account for in advance.

10. Which kinds of agents act through the skin?

Chemical agents like mustard and VX can act readily through the skin, eyes, etc. Most other chemical agents less so-inhalation being the more typical route for CW weapons. BW agents are also often inhaled, but can occasionally inoculate through the eyes and skin. Only one biological toxin (T2) is active through topical skin contact. Some agents such as Francisella tularensis (tularemia) can also infect through broken skin, as does the cutaneous form of anthrax. Often, we may have abrasions or cuts that are not very perceptible but may be enough to allow ingress of some pathogens, and infections could result.

11. I have a scar from the smallpox vaccination I received as a child. Am I still protected from the disease?

In a word: No. The most conservative and therefore best estimate is that beyond 10 (and possibly as little as 5) years, the smallpox vaccine is no longer effective. Leaving aside some military and other government and health-industries personnel, virtually no one in the US general population has been vaccinated against smallpox since 1972. And in the global population, general vaccinations, worldwide, ceased about fifteen years ago. This is an extraordinarily dangerous situation, since it means that extremely large percentages of the populace here and around the globe are what is known as "immunologically naïve." That is, they are unprotected from variola major, the virus that causes smallpox. There are many frightening challenges presented by smallpox. First, it is highly contagious-that is, from person to person-in a way that anthrax, for example, is not. And there is no known cure. On the other hand, we in the US do have some smallpox vaccine on hand (roughly estimated at 15 million doses, which most likely can be diluted to treat quickly perhaps as many as 100 million people), and we have embarked on a crash program to have some 300 million doses of a new safer and more effective vaccine ready within a year.

12. Is there an anthrax vaccine? Is it effective?

The currently produced Protective Antigen (PA)-based vaccine in the United States has shown excellent efficacy in monkeys challenged with anthrax aerosols, and we have other evidence that suggests its protection in humans. However, because of ethical and legal constraints, we can never have a "gold standard" trial in humans with potentially deadly anthrax exposure. There have been two major disputes about the vaccine. In the first, a number of US military personnel refused to receive the the series of injections with which the DOD wanted to vaccinate the entire armed forces. In the second, Bioport, the Michigan company that was given the DOD contract to produce large quantities of the vaccine, has repeatedly failed to deliver on its promises of rapid production. Since 9/11/01, both of these issues are on their way to being resolved.

13. How far can anthrax spores spread?

Depending on the consistency of the spores, i.e., in the particle sizes of concern, they can drift for miles. However, the concentration of the spores and their effects on humans will rapidly dissipate as they become diluted in the air.

14. How does someone get their hands on anthrax or other chem/bio agents? Can people make these things themselves?

It is generally very difficult to acquire and produce weaponized CBW agents; however, with some effort and a lot of patience it can be done. The problem of proliferation is treated in great detail in the book. Interestingly, it seems that we have made rather good progress in limiting the spread of chemical weapons, largely on the basis of the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993. (This international agreement, sponsored by the United Nations, is in my opinion a model of how a strong international nonproliferation agreement should be written.) In contrast, the much older Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention of 1972 has been much less successful in its implementation, partly because it is so much easier to hide the development of biological agent research and production facilities, and partly because of some reluctance on the part of developed nations, and primarily the United States, to subject its pharmaceutical and particularly biotechnology companies to the kinds of inspections that may compromise their patents and proprietary research.

15. What countries have anthrax, etc.?

We only are certain that Iraq has produced anthrax, along with former BW programs in the former Soviet Union and the United States. Anecdotal information suggests North Korea has anthrax for use in weapons, but this is unconfirmed. For a list of the 14 nations that are currently on the US State Department list, see chapter 2.

16. What do anthrax lesions look like?

The cutaneous form of anthrax presents with a darkened eschar or papule that are not painful, but can be somewhat itchy and are generally striking in appearance. The blackened color of these ulcerating lesions gave rise to the name anthrax from the Greek for coal (anthrakis).

17. I've read that anthrax can be genetically manipulated to make it more dangerous and untreatable. Has this been done?

The former Soviet program developed at least one strain of Bacillus anthracis that was resistant to antibiotics. This does not mean it is untreatable, but certainly presents more challenges to civilian and military defense.

18. What are the symptoms of anthrax? If you get the symptoms, is the disease still treatable at that point? Are some segments of the population more susceptible to anthrax (young, old, smokers)?

Inhalation anthrax begins with ache, fever, and general malaise, with toxic-shock developing as toxins are released by the bacteria. Further along the course of disease, breathing becomes labored, with some improvement but then rapid deterioration. Data are not enough or reliable to specifically address when chances are lost for treating inhalation anthrax or other forms in which the bacteria have spread (sepsis). Upon exposure, and early into infection, individuals have recently been able to survive with aggressive medical intervention. It would appear that older people, possibly smokers, could be more susceptible to infection, but one should use caution because most studies on anthrax in humans have too few subjects or are from unreliable sources.

19. How long does it take to detect a chemical or germ that has been introduced into the environment? How does this work?

Chemical agents can be detected remotely with infrared spectra or close-up with instruments that work in similar fashion to smoke detectors. The detection in these instances is a matter of minutes, but most of these advanced devices are available only in the military. BW agents, on the other hand, take much longer to detect and confirm, anywhere from an hour to days, depending upon the agent in question. Often, BW agents are confirmed with immunological assays or PCR-type analyses. In both cases, however, there is considerable difficulty in separating real CW and BW agents from so-called "background noise"-meaning that such systems are either too slow to give civilians a "real time" reading, or give too many false positive indications, which greatly diminishes their efficacy.

20. How realistic is it to think our water supply could be contaminated?

Not very. Water supplies in the US at least are remote, meaning that it would take a long time for an agent introduced into the system to reach the end users, and by that time it would very likely be so diluted that it would have little or no effect. Moreover, most US water systems not only chlorinate and aerate the water supply, but are constantly monitored and checked for foreign substances that may be introduced to the system.

21. Which bioagents are communicable?

Smallpox is among the most contagious, followed by pneumonic plague and perhaps some hemorrhagic fevers, depending on the type. Assuming that vectors such as insects and rodents are under control, secondary infections are not likely to occur in other cases. Aside from smallpox and plague, BW agents often cause diseases that are not readily communicable from person to person.

22. Which bio and chem agents are most likely to be deployed against civilians?

If one were to guess, and using past experience, nerve agents, cyanide and some other poisons found in civilian use may be utilized by terrorists. For BW agents, anthrax is usually on top of the list due to its relative ease of acquisition and dissemination. The threat from botulinum toxin, however, has probably been exaggerated in the past.

23. Can rain wash these agents away?

Water is a very good dilutant and will help ¨lessen the effect of most CBW agents, even those CW agents that do not hydrolyze very quickly. Once BW agents have fallen to the ground, these are not likely to cause harm in humans, unless through secondary ingestion of contaminated materials. These too can also be washed away and rendered harmless.

24. What are the side effects of the various drugs prescribed for treatment (Cipro, for ex.)? Are some people allergic to these drugs?

Ciprofloxacin and other antibiotics each have their own toxicological profile, and while generally safe might have some side effects depending upon the individual.. Some people may be allergic to some of these regimens (such as penicillin). None of these should be used without the direction and advice of a physician.

25. I'm not familiar with the Monterey Institute. Why does your work there qualify you as an expert on this topic?

As a research division of the Monterey Institute of International Studies, the Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) is the largest nongovernmental organization devoted to the study and teaching of weapons of mass destruction. CNS staff regularly are called upon by government (including US Congressional testimonies), media, and other organizations for their expertise in nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and their proliferation.

December 1, 2001, Copernicus Books, $27.50, hardcover Contact: Katharine Smalley at 212/228-0175 x216

December 2001