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Two years ago, biotechnology lived a disturbing moment: the Canadian team of scientist David Evans managed to synthesize in a standard laboratory an eradicated disease : nothing less than the deadly smallpox, the largest serial killer in history, with a 30% mortality , joining DNA sequences. It was not a very expensive experiment within the reach of a few states and therein lies the problem: it was achieved with a budget of 83,000 euros and materials available to anyone. Many scientists criticized him for giving ideas to possible terrorist groups in search of new weapons. "The world needs to accept the fact that smallpox virus can be manufactured in the laboratory," was his response. From that synthesis, it can be extended with a spray in minutes in large concentrations of people or public transport. The result would be a pandemic.
Why did Evans choose smallpox for his experiment / complaint? In recent centuries this microscopic devil killed more people than all natural disasters, plague epidemics and wars together . Even the survivors suffer all their life the marks of the disease in the form of scars. The last person who suffered this virus was the medical photographer Janet Parker, in 1978 when taking images of the pathogen. The scientific community knows that there are two samples of the virus stored in high security centers before being eradicated, one in Atlanta, USA, and another in Novosibisk, Russia , but no one can ensure that there are no other hidden samples. By the way, synthesizing the virus is not the only way to release it. The bodies of people killed by smallpox can also be thawed. One of the conclusions of a study by the World Health Organization published in 2015 (involving two Spanish experts, Mariano Esteban and Antonio Alcamí) was that the risk of recurrence of this virus has multiplied , with the risk that in addition I returned mutated, like the smallpox or Monkeypox , which was first documented in 1958 and in 2016 affected 19 people in the Central African Republic.
Evans's experiment opens several questions: Are we prepared to reject a bioterrorist attack? Are biological weapons a real threat? What defenses do we have? Who manages them?
Colonel José Ignacio Castro Torres, an analyst at the Spanish Institute for Strategic Studies, believes that " the possibilities of biological terrorism are very extensive , since it can not only affect human beings, but also livestock and agriculture, as well as water resources. We must also take into account the introduction of new plant or animal species in other ecosystems in which they are not native, thus being able to alter them, as they are considered invasive species. "
The mark on the shoulder
Are we protected in Spain? If you are over 40, you probably have a small scarification on the shoulder , the mark of the old vaccine, but no one knows for sure how many years it is still effective in our body. Those born beyond 1980 were no longer vaccinated. Therefore, there is a high percentage of the country and humanity by extension that is unprotected. It is believed that there is a periodically renewed reserve of about four million doses of vaccines worldwide for defensive purposes, but most European countries are like Spain, which has 2,000,000 copies of the old vaccines purchased in 2003 already expired and protected by the army in the strategic state depot, along with vaccines against other viruses such as bird flu.
Another problem we would face in case of a smallpox biological attack is the lack of experience. According to a report of the company Karyotype MH5 entitled Biological threat, a real threat ?, " the last outbreak that affected Spain was in 1961 , so the vast majority of health professionals have not had the opportunity to see clinical cases of this sickness". The same happens in the rest of Europe. "For each case confirmed in a city with high population density there could be between 10 or 20 secondary cases ," the report states.
There is a new generation of the smallpox vaccine, ACAM200, with fewer side effects than the old one. The brand, Emergent BioSolutions, which also manufactures vaccines against Anthrax, has provided thousands of doses to the US, France, the Netherlands, Canada or Germany , but only for members of the army or medical services who went to work face to face with the disease in case of accident bioterrorism in a laboratory.
Buy these weapons
Al Qaeda and the Islamic State have tried to develop these types of biological weapons and have even tried to buy them from states that own these programs. There is tangible evidence of North Korea's work to investigate in the field of biotechnological warfare, which is why all US soldiers deployed at its border are vaccinated against smallpox with ACAM2000, while South Korea is the country that carries out more mock attacks.
For Colonel José Ignacio Castro Torres, «the greatest threat is influenza viruses, among which are some well-known, such as the case of avian influenza. The World Health Organization estimates that such a global pandemic could cause 700,000 deaths annually while the disease lasts. "And ensures that" all security experts, and in this case biosafety, state that zero risk does not exist. ".
Reviewing the recent history of terrorism, there have not yet been major attacks using viruses or toxins , but we do find small-scale actions that led to great social panic and some defenselessness on the part of the authorities at the time of occurrence: in 1984, the followers from the osho sect in The Dalles, Oregon, they contaminated with salmonella the buffets of 10 restaurants with the result of 751 infected . Six years later, the Japanese Supreme Truth sect tried to produce botulinum toxin (one of the most powerful poisons that exist) and anthrax to commit attacks. Finally they killed 13 people in the Tokyo subway with sarin gas. Finally, microbiologist Bruce Ivins sent several letters with dust full of anthrax spores to both senators and the media after the attacks of September 11, 2001 in New York and Washington. There were 22 infected, of which five died.
In Europe, we have registered several cases of bioterrorism, some of them characteristic of the Cold War novels. On such a day as yesterday 41 years ago a man punctured the Bulgarian dissident Gueorgui Markov with the end of an umbrella on the bank of the Thames. All indications suggest that this umbrella contained a small metal pellet loaded with a potent poison (ricin, a toxin that is extracted from castor beans) that was inoculated in the body of the dissident, who died days later.
Biological weapons have an obvious limitation for use in a war: it is difficult to use bioterrorism in such a way that it only affects the enemy and not the forces themselves . But that same problem can be an advantage for those terrorists who want to carry out a martyrdom operation, as many jihadists call for example to commit suicide while the massacre is being carried out.
Since 1976, the year in which scientists detected a new deadly hemorrhagic fever along the Ebola River (from which it took its name), several countries and organizations, including the former USSR, have attempted to produce weapons based on their mortal capacity . According to a report by the Spanish Institute for Strategic Studies, the US and British authorities are concerned about the possible bioterrorist use of the Ebola virus by jihadist groups as an Islamic State. Information on obtaining and disseminating the bubonic plague producing agent to produce mass casualties was found in one of its dens in Syria, as well as the fatwa of the cleric Nasr Bin Al-Fah, where the use of biological weapons was justified.
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