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The Looming Threat

Bioweapons are much more prevalent and virulent than most of us realize. And we have little defense.

In 1918, a strain of influenza killed between 20 million and 40 million people around the world—more people in one year than had died of the Black Plague in four. In the United States, nearly a third of the population was infected; so many died that streetcars were used as hearses in some cities.

The Spanish flu of 1918 was the last fast-burning pandemic in the developed world. Increasingly sophisticated treatments and health policies have made infectious diseases of diminishing concern in the West. Heedlessly, we act as if the eradication of infectious disease is inevitable.

In the 21st century, new pathogens will nevertheless emerge, as humans encroach on the biosphere and germs evolve into antibiotic-resistant forms. The most frightening possibilities, though, lie with genetically engineered biological weapons.

“You can speculate about a plague-Ebola combination,” Serguei Popov, a Russian molecular biologist, told me last summer when I visited his offices at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. “I know that those who ran the Soviet bioweapons program studied that possibility. I can talk with certainty about a synthesis of plague and Venezuelan equine encephalitis, because the guy who did that presented the data to me.”

Biowarfare: The Looming Threat; Copyright © 2003 Acumen Sciences, LLC, All Rights Reserved.

Before fleeing Russia in 1992, Dr. Popov had probably done as much with genetically engineered pathogens as anyone.1 In the �80s, he made his name by devising a new class of bioweapon: genetic hybrids using pathogens and human DNA that would goad victims� immune systems into attacking their own nervous systems, inducing brain damage, paralysis, and death, leaving behind only the myelin produced by the victims� own bodies.2

“With the myelin toxin, the infection might initially show symptoms like those of typical plague or mild pneumonia,” Dr. Popov explained. The hybrid genes that he and his team engineered would themselves be spliced into some more innocuous bacterium like Legionella pneumophila, the bacterium responsible for Legionnaire�s disease. Thus, Dr. Popov continued, victims would first show pneumonia�s typical symptoms. “So the person would be treated for those and feel healthy. Then the disease�s second wave would come two weeks later, and it would be devastating.”


1  Leitenberg, M. (April 16, 2002) Biological Weapons and Bioterrorism in the First Years of the 21st Century, paper delivered to a conference in Rome entitled “The Possible Use of Biological Weapons by Terrorist Groups: Scientific, Legal and International Implications”: 57,72�4.

2  Serguei Popov, interview (Nov. 13, 2000) Journal of Homeland Defense, Online.