Emerging bio-threats: The age of the invisible enemy



The 2001 Anthrax attacks on America were met with shock, fear and disbelief. The horror of the September 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre was exacerbated by the mailing of envelopes containing Bacillus Anthracis (Anthrax) spores to media companies and congressional offices, resulting in the deaths of 5 people and illness of a further 17 people, a nation in panic, and numerous hoaxes and false alarms adding to an already stressed emergency infrastructure. The ‘Amerithrax’ investigation by the FBI alleged that Dr Bruce Ivins, a biodefence researcher working for the US government, was responsible for the attacks. While Ivins committed suicide before he could be formally charged, the attack exposed considerable global vulnerabilities in biosecurity, including the lack of security measures at diagnostic and research facilities.

Over 15 years have passed since the Anthrax attacks, and while global terrorist incidents are seemingly on the rise and dominating mainstream media, there have been no significant bio-incidents following the 2001 Anthrax event. In recent times, we have instead witnessed the rise of ‘lone wolf attacks’ by individuals or loosely coordinated groups, utilising conventional items as weapons to successfully carry out terror attacks… a far cry from what would constitute a sophisticated bioterror incident whereby deadly pathogens are extracted, cultivated, developed into a viable weapon and successfully deployed. Suicide bombings and sidewalk terror seem a more likely choice due to their ease and impact.

Although bioterrorism remains a less likely scenario in the present security environment, other perhaps more worrying global biothreats have emerged. Like it or not, these threats are already here, knocking loudly on the doors of global policy makers. Antimicrobial Resistance, Dual-Use Research of Concern (DURC), Gain-of Function Research, and the DIY-Bio Revolution are featured as the most prominent biological threats. Not to be overlooked however, are the pathogens which occur naturally in the environment, and a result of the evolution of micro-organisms. Health officials and experts predict that approximately 70% of emerging infectious diseases are ‘zoonotic’ – diseases which originate in animals and are transmitted to humans. With global travel and trade, agricultural intensification and urbanisation fuelling pandemic potential of disease outbreaks, it is of little wonder that global health leaders are concerned about emerging and novel zoonotic diseases…Click HERE to read full article.