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Biowar Stories

Philip Morrison

Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War. Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg and William Broad. 381 pp. Simon & Schuster, 2001. $27.

Three senior journalists of the New York Times—an experienced correspondent, an investigative editor and a science journalist—wrote Germs, which chronicles U.S. preparations for biological warfare. They completed their text last August, just in time for it to be catapulted onto the Times bestseller list in the wake of the catastrophic hijackings.

Germs is less a history than a revealing, meticulous, topical inside narrative enlivened by personalities. It begins with the story of the covert, nonlethal germ attacks on the voters of Wasco County, Oregon, by Rajneeshee cult members in 1987 (the agent was Salmonella typhimurium, sprayed onto salad bar ingredients).

This is followed by the story of Fort Detrick, which was built in rural Maryland as a center for biowar development in 1943—about the same time as Los Alamos. At each site, roughly a thousand men and women worked in research and development and a few thousand others in support. The destructive power of nuclear weapons has been fearsomely demonstrated, whereas post–World War II germ warfare has yet to claim its first city. But per pound of weapon, modern nuclear warheads entail a likely toll of a few hundred urban lives, whereas well-prepared and delivered anthrax spores could threaten up to 10 times that many.

A major participant in this oral and documentary history of Detrick is William C. Patrick III, who rose to become chief of product development there. Patrick has long been an enthusiast for Detrick's cheap means of destruction, which he sees as enabling deterrence by the threat of retaliation in kind. "Defense studies," Patrick has observed, "are so much more complicated. It takes eighteen months to develop a weapons-grade agent, and ten years to develop a good vaccine against it."

Patrick led a major expansion into virus work in the late 1950s, building a large production site in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, where hen's eggs, a culture medium for many viruses, are plentiful. The early 1960s saw development of a contingency plan, made public here for the first time, for a nonlethal attack on Cuba. The Marshall Plan, as it was known, called for dousing the island from jet aircraft with a cocktail of staphylococcal enterotoxin B and the organisms that cause Venezuelan equine encephalitis and Q fever. It was estimated that 1 in 100 Cubans would die of the dose, some 70,000 people—"mostly old folks like me," Patrick predicted. The plan was never enacted.

All offensive work at Detrick was stopped early in 1970 by order of President Richard Nixon, a few months after citizens marched on Detrick's gates. Any defensive studies could continue—in secret, of course. By 1970 the United States was advocating a treaty forbidding all preparation for offensive biological warfare as immoral and repugnant, but defense was excepted. In 1972, a hundred nations or so signed up, led by the United States and the Soviet Union. The document included no standards for the permitted work, nothing quantitative and no means of verification. Its utter failure is documented in subsequent chapters.

The most striking material deals with the post-Soviet 1990s. In 1995 a young diplomat, Andrew Weber, the polite, soft-spoken first secretary at the American embassy in Kazakhstan, secured an invitation from President Nazarbayev to become the first American to enter the abandoned and decaying germ weapons production plant that the Soviets had built in Stepnogorsk in 1982. Weber had earned trust, not only by his demeanor, but by his earlier role in "preemptive acquisition," organizing the American purchase from the Kazakh state of 600 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium and a squadron of MiG-29 jet fighters. At Stepnogorsk, he and a small U.S. team stared inside Building 221 to see a 600-foot-long rank of 10 silo-sized fermenters, each with a capacity of 20 tons of fluid (the equivalent of the total Iraqi store of germs). Here anthrax strain #836, the most virulent, was developed by Ken Alibek, the Kazakh biologist who has become the best-known defector from Biopreparat (the Soviet network of cities, plants and centers that perfected germs as weapons). The truth on the ground was grimmer than that described by defectors and orbital photoanalysts—really big, bolshoi. This was the most elaborate of more than 40 secret sites across Russia and Kazakhstan, all in gross and gloomy violation of the 1972 treaty banning germ weapons.

President Clinton became deeply interested in issues of biological warfare, and many novel defensive projects were begun during his administration. The current Bush administration has added the Pentagon's Project Jefferson, which has contracted out the task of reproducing Soviet success in genetically modifying anthrax to be vaccine-resistant.

Two American biologists, among the brightest early stars of microbial genetics, have been active for nearly 40 years in attempting to prevent biowar. Nobelist Joshua Lederberg has tirelessly advanced imaginative public health initiatives to block germ-war threats. Matthew Meselson favors a global treaty (similar to the ones against hijacking airplanes, harming diplomats and taking hostages) that would make it a crime for individuals, not just states, to produce or use germ weapons. These two men concur that the danger is long-term.

The three authors conclude prudently with a question. Is the threat of biological war exaggerated or real? Both, they reply. It is easy to imagine what a small band of attackers prepared for death might do. Small amounts of a virulent airborne infectious agent suit their limited powers better than tons of anthrax. The record suggests that we have not seen the end of such dangers.—Philip Morrison, Institute Professor Emeritus, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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