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Bioterrorism led by Professor Dean Wilkening

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  • February 06, 2009
    Round Table
    Only by Invitation

    IDSA organized a round table on the subject of bioterrorism on February 6, 2009. The main speaker at the event was Prof. Dean Wilkening, Director, Science Programme at Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), Stanford University.

    In his presentation Prof. Dean pointed out that biological weapons would be suitable for the new brand of terrorism, which comprises mostly of religious, nihilist, and millenarian groups. These groups were less constrained than their predecessors in terms of means and ends. Certain biological agents could be more lethal than chemical agents. The use of highly effective aerial methods of disseminating biological agents results in a high psychological impact. Some of the factors influencing the consequences of air- borne release of biological agents were delineated -- deposition in lower respiratory tract, atmospheric transport, agent characteristics and protection measures.

    Past incidents of bioterrorism, in particular the case of Aum Shinrikiyo, were discussed at length. It was also mentioned that while non-state actors might encounter hurdles in acquiring and using biological agents, state sponsored acts of biological terrorism are more possible.

    Prof. Wilkening shared the information gathered after a simulation exercise that was conducted to ascertain the number of people who would be affected by exposure to biological agents. It was found out that the spectrum of biological threat is very broad. With a band of possibility of attacks, the number of people affected might range from 100 to one million (contingent on the infectious dosage and the agent characteristics, etc). One of the important findings of this study was that uncertainty with regards to biological agents, their use, and effects is far greater than that of any other weapon. This makes them most suitable weapons of terror.

    While discussing the various strategies of coping with bioterrorism, four major elements were brought out. These were diplomacy, deterrence, pre-emption/counterforce, and defence. The element of defence was further divided into active and passive components, with elements of safety for covert delivery of biological agents forming part of active defence and measures for civil defence a part of passive defense. The various stages of biodefense that were outlined included pre-attack vaccination, agent detection and identification, post-attack medical response and post-attack decontamination. It was brought out that the guiding philosophy for US biodefence is to focus on programmes and activities with public health benefits. The biodefence timeline in US policy comprises of various stages. Detection and identification within 24 hours of the outbreak of disease, providing medical logistics in the first 48 hours, prophylaxis campaign spread over the next 2 days and finally the last stage of decontamination comprising of 4 to 6 days.

    The problem of differentiating between deliberate and natural outbreak of disease was discussed in detail. Prof. Wilkening talked about bioforensics. This is an upcoming science, used extensively by centres like NBACC's National Bioforensic Analysis Center (NBFAC). Bioforensic analysis of evidence is conducted from a biocrime or terrorist attack to attain a “biological fingerprint” to help investigators identify perpetrators and determine the origin and method of attack.

    Towards the end of the meeting the need to develop simulation models that pertains to the Indian context was articulated. For institutes that focus on security and strategic studies, there would be significant interest in exploring the non-public health aspects related to bioterrorism. In addition, the necessity to enhance inter-agency cooperation in India and tap existing talent in the field of biological weaponry and related issues to develop a better understanding of the subject was highlighted.

    Prepared by Dr. Monalisa Joshi, Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.