Bio-terror shock, horror

Bioterrorism has been a regular headline grabber since the post 9/11 anthrax attacks in the USA. Even though the idea that a terrorist cell might manufacture old or new nasties got no support from the facts about that attack which eventually emerged (the anthrax strain used came from the US biowar labs at Fort Detrick), bioterror scenarios have been popular ways to scare us ever since.

The latest to buy in big time are the members of the cumbersomely named Commission for the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism – a high-level Congressional inquiry – who warned the other day that it is “more likely than not” that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013, and that this is more likely to involve a biological than a nuclear weapon.

The report “World at Risk” (ha!) duly grabbed lots of news-space. But when you actually read it, it seems pretty short on evidence that this is actually the case. In fact, as the more-critical-than-the-average journalists as ProPublica point out, Milton Leitenberg’s 2005 analysis of why most of the bioterror scenarios are little but a stack of implausible assumptions still holds up well.

None of which means that the advance of desktop DNA synthesis and the like does not deserve careful thought about how to prevent its use by those with malign intent. But it reinforces the feeling that the firm prediction made by the WMD commission is pretty flaky.

Then again, I am not personally that worried about newly-emerging (natural) diseases either – so when I’m frothing at the mouth and bleeding from the eyes I’ll have to listen to all the patho-pessimists saying “we told you so” as well as trying to persuade my immune system to save me from a dreadful new death.

(NB the ProPublica reference was not tracked by me, but came from Leitenberg – in obliging reponse to a query about his view of the new Commission’s report. I think we may infer that he doesn’t think much of it.)

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