Bioterrorism threatening humankind

American Special Forces, police and fire fighters recently cordoned off the election headquarters of presidential candidate John Kerry after a letter with unidentified powder was delivered to the premises.

Americans have every reason to worry, as they still remember letters with anthrax spores mailed to different US organisations in September and October 2001. Expert analysis showed this time that the letter to Kerry's headquarters was a practical joke: the letter contained powdered garlic. The Washington FBI department confirmed that the contents of the letter were harmless but said it would carefully investigate the incident.

This is a justified measure, as the possibility of biological attacks by terrorists is quite real. Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service warned the world about the possibility of bioterrorism ten years ago in its analytical report, "New Challenge after the Cold War: WMD Proliferation." This open report was certainly carefully analysed by foreign security services, which nevertheless did not heed the warning about the possibility of "agricultural terrorism" in peacetime in conditions of "economic warfare." The issue was taken up eight years later, when there was a theory that mad cow disease and foot-and-mouth in Western Europe (mostly in Britain), which was initially thought to have had natural causes or to have been provoked by careless Dutch or Belgian farmers, could have been a project of biological terrorism.

Viktor Zuyev, vice president of the Russian Academy of Sciences and full member of the New York Academy of Sciences, thinks the potential arsenal of biological weapons includes 13 viruses, 7 bacteria, 3 rickets that provoke typhoid and other dangerous infectious diseases, and 12 microbe toxins. The most dangerous biological agents are viruses of the plague, tularemia, anthrax, brucellosis, eastern equine encephalitis, cholera, yellow fever, and botulism.

Russia's Defence Ministry inherited from the Soviet era three centres that are the only holders of the state "collection" of viruses that can be potentially used in biological warfare. Scientists are working to create vaccines and other defences against them. The collection is standard in all other respects, but with a special register. The strains are used to check the effectiveness of the means against them.

In view of the growing possibility of the use of biological materials for terrorist purposes, Russia has launched a federal programme to create methods and means to protect the population and the environment from dangerous and highly dangerous pathogens in natural disasters and industrial accidents for 1999-2005. A commission on biological security was set up at the expert advisory council on national security under the speaker of the State Duma (the lower chamber of parliament). Additional measures have been taken to raise the effectiveness of task groups in anti-plague establishments at the Health Ministry and the sanitary and epidemics departments of the Defence Ministry.

A visiting session of the State Duma committee on security was held in Pushchino outside Moscow, where bio-technological research institutes, laboratories and design bureaux are located. MPs, scientists and representatives of security services discussed ways of combating bioterrorism in Russia. On the initiative of law enforcement agencies, two international forums were held in Moscow to analyse new challenges of modern terrorism and exchange experience of precluding and fighting it. The USA, Britain, Germany, France, Israel, Belgium and many other countries sent their delegates to these conferences.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the efforts of the security services are not enough to do away with the biological danger. Now that international terrorism is devising new weapons, no country must remain an aloof observer in the struggle against it.

Oleg Nechiporenko, General Director of the National Anti-Crime and Anti-Terrorist Foundation of Russia.

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Author`s name: Editorial Team