As the historical record demonstrates it is quite difficult to produce an effective biological WMD. Many news media stories and various other “experts” continue to discuss the ease in which a BW can be produced. This is not the case and in all five of the steps below a significant amount of money, equipment, special training and precautions must be taken to produce a BW (8).
Acquire the appropriate strain of the disease pathogen. Not all isolates of a particular microorganism are the same. Spontaneous mutations and loss of extrachromosomal DNA (plasmids) can drastically affect the ability of an organism to cause disease. For example there are at least two different strains of smallpox. One strain, variola major, of the virus causes a very severe form of smallpox that can kill up to 30% of those it infects. Another strain, variola minor, of the virus causes a milder form of the disease that only kills up to 1% of those infected (9). Obtaining pathogenic strains of a particular BW can be difficult because those with the pathogenic BW strains usually do not just give them away to anyone who asks. They usually will make sure the person asking for the organism has some legal reason to get the organism.
Know how to handle the pathogens correctly. Handling something you cannot see is not always easy. Even well trained microbiologists have accidentally infected themselves. Working with lethal biological agents makes knowing how to work with them even more crucial. Viral pathogens can be even more difficult than bacterial pathogens to handle and grow. Viruses need other living cells to infect and grow in. Knowing how to grow those cells and then harvest the viruses from the cells requires special training and experience. Not only does someone in the BW industry need to know how to properly handle the microorganisms but they also need to know how to maintain them so that they retain their pathogenic capabilities. Testing the microbial strains for these pathogenic capabilities requires advanced training and extensive amounts of knowledge.
Know how to grow them in a way that will produce the appropriate characteristics. Just getting a lot of a particular organism to grow does not always result in a preparation that will be effective as a BW. Anthrax bacteria can exist in two different forms: vegetative cells and spores. Only the spore form causes disease in humans following inhalation. Special conditions are required to get the anthrax bacteria preparation to contain mostly spores. Even if special growth conditions are used other special techniques may be necessary to get the spores in high enough concentration to create an effective BW. Just inhaling one cell of a particular BW will not usually cause an infection. There is usually an infectious dose that has to be inhaled for an infection to occur. In the case of anthrax most believe that 8,000-10,000 spores have to be inhaled to cause a human infection (9). A low concentration of spores spread over a wide area will be less likely to cause human infections.
Know how to store them, and to scale-up production properly. Living organisms improperly cared for will die. Most microorganisms can be stored for long periods of time but once again knowing how to do this requires a certain amount of unique training. It is a whole lot easier to grow small amounts of a BW than the large amounts needed to release a BW over a large area. Media and aeration techniques that work in small test tubes usually do not work when growing up large volumes of a BW. When grown in large volumes the microorganisms can respond differently and frequently require modifications to get the same result obtained when smaller amounts of BW are produced. It is also much harder to maintain conditions that prevent contamination of the BW from other organisms in the environment. Special containment provisions should be in place in a production facility (negative pressure, decontamination areas, filters in heating and cooling ducts) to prevent accidental release of the BW into the environment surrounding the facility. Those people working in the facility will also need special equipment to protect them in case of an accidental BW release.Know how to disperse them properly. Knowing how to grow and maintain a BW requires a sphere of knowledge frequently acquired by microbiologists. However, developing the means to properly prepare and disperse a BW requires a totally different sphere of knowledge. Engineering professionals are usually required to accomplish these tasks and even then significant interactions between the microbiologist and the engineer are required to obtain the most effective dispersal methods. In many cases several highly trained professionals are needed to produce an effective BW.
© 2005 Neal Chamberlain. All rights reserved.
Site Last Revised 5/6/05
Neal Chamberlain, PhD. A. T. Still University of Health Sciences/Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine.
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