Last week I came across an article, in the usually somewhat staid magazine Foreign Policy, with this subhead:
Buried in a Dell computer captured in Syria are lessons for making bubonic plague bombs and missives on using weapons of mass destruction.
That got my attention. Just months ago, I'd written my own article on bioterrorism for our newspaper, Inside Stanford Medicine. So I was aware that, packaged properly, contagious one-celled pathogens can wipe out as many people as a hydrogen bomb, or more. Not only are bioweapons inexpensive (they've been dubbed "the poor man's nuke"), but the raw materials that go into them - unlike those used for creating nuclear weapons - are all around us. That very ubiquity, were a bioweapon to be deployed, could make fingering the perp tough.
The focal personality in my ISM article, Stanford emergency-medicine doctor and bioterrorism expert Milana Trounce, MD, had already convinced me that producing bioweapons on the cheap - while certainly no slam-dunk - was also not farfetched. "What used to require hundreds of scientists and big labs can now be accomplished in a garage with a few experts and a relatively small amount of funding, using the know-how freely available on the internet," she'd said.
This passage in the Foreign Policy article rendered that statement scarily apropos:
The information on the laptop makes clear that its owner is a Tunisian national named Muhammed S. who joined ISIS [which now calls itself "Islamic State"] in Syria and who studied chemistry and physics at two universities in Tunisia's northeast. Even more disturbing is how he planned to use that education: The ISIS laptop contains a 19-page document in Arabic on how to develop biological weapons and how to weaponize the bubonic plague from infected animals.
I sent Trounce a link to the Foreign Policy article. "There's a big difference between simply having an infectious disease agent and weaponizing it," she responded in an email. "However, it wouldn't be particularly difficult to get experts to help with the weaponization process. The terrorist has a picked a good infectious agent for creating a bioweapon. Plague is designated as a Category A agent along with anthrax, smallpox, tularemia, botulinum, and viral hemorrhagic fevers. The agents on the Category A list pose the highest risk to national security, because they: 1) can be easily disseminated or transmitted from person to person; 2) result in high mortality rates and have the potential for major public-health impact; 3) might cause public panic and social disruption; and 4) require special action for public-health preparedness."
Islamic State's interest in weaponizing bubonic plague should be taken seriously. Here's one reason why (from my ISM article):
In 1347, the Tatars catapulted the bodies of bubonic-plague victims over the defensive walls of the Crimean Black Sea port city now called Feodosia, then a gateway to the Silk Road trade route. That effort apparently succeeded a bit too well. Some of the city's residents escaped in sailing ships that, alas, were infested with rats. The rats carried fleas. The fleas carried Yersinia pestis, the bacterial pathogen responsible for bubonic plague. The escapees docked in various Italian ports, from which the disease spread northward over the next three years. Thus ensued the Black Death, a scourge that wiped out nearly a third of western Europe's population.