[ by Charles Cameron — once again, the message is “keep calm and carry on” ]
First off, a tweet I made this morning, quoting a stunning fact from Scientific American‘s piece today, Where Does Ebola Hide?
I would like to honor the memory, compassion and courage of those who died, and the compassion and courage of those who worked beside them.
That said ..
In a post titled What Would It Take to Bring Ebola Into the U.S. and the NATO Crusaders’ (see image below), a poster on what we’re told is an official IS forum suggested three approaches:
- infect ISIS fighters in Africa send them to the US to spread the disease
- bring a bottle of Pepsi filled with the virus from Africa to the US and pour it into the water supply
- send the virus “in the mail like anthrax”.
There thus appear to be be two major ways in which the “terrorists might use Ebola against us” idea can be presented: the first involves getting one or more live IS suicide volunteers into the United States before their symptoms make them easily identifiable; the other involves using a “weaponized” form of the virus in some form of bomb, as in the “Pepsi” and “mail” sugestions above.
Let’s take a look at each of the two in turn. While we’re at it, we may want to consider the backgrounds of the authorities quoted.
Amanda Teckman, author of the paper “The Bioterrorist Threat of Ebola in East Africa and Implications for Global Health and Security” concludes that “the threat of an Ebola bioterrorist attack in East Africa is a global health and security concern, and should not be ignored.” The Washington Post has quoted Teckman, whose master’s degree is in diplomacy and international relations — so she must surely know, eh?
Professor Anthony Glees agrees that the strategy might be considered. He says, “In some ways it’s a plausible theory – IS fighters believe in suicide and this is a potential job for a suicide mission. They are sufficiently murderous and well-informed to consider it, and they know that we’ve been remiss in the UK.” Prof. Glees appears to be an expert on the Stasi and intelligence, and is Director at Buckingham University’s Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies
They would know, too, right? They’re national security experts, they have what I might characterize as “adjacent authority”.
And Capt. Al Shimkus (Ret) says the strategy is entirely plausible. He told Forbes, “The individual exposed to the Ebola Virus would be the carrier. In the context of terrorist activity, it doesn’t take much sophistication to go to that next step to use a human being as a carrier.” Capt. Shimkus is a Professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, where he teaches a course in chemical and biological warfare. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Nursing and a Bachelor of Science in Nurse Anesthesia.
Capt. Shimkus would appear to be better credentialled to discuss the matter than Prof. Glees or Ms. Teckman — but he’s no research scientist working in the field of biological agents.
William Schaffner, on the other hand, is an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt. He spoke with Vocativ, who reported:
Schaffner .. believes it’s doubtful that an ISIS soldier could start an Ebola outbreak in the U.S. The most likely way to spread Ebola would be for an infected fighter to head to an emergency room without telling anyone he’s carrying the disease. That could potentially spread the virus to health care workers, Schaffner says, but even that scenario is far-fetched. Ebola symptoms can surface after just a couple days. By the time a would-be martyr reached the U.S., he’d probably be too ill to make it past customs. “Once the serious symptoms begin, the patient typically becomes too incapacitated and cannot go further,” Chow points out.
Jack Chow is Distinguished Service Professor of Global Health at Carnegie Mellon.
Dr Schaffner’s medical credentials, largely oriented to epoidemiology, are available on the Vanderbilt site.
Dr Chow’s bio is on the Carnegie Mellon site, and includes an MD from UCSF and an MPA in International Policy from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Further:
Dr. Chow held the rank of ambassador as the Special Representative on Global HIV/AIDS for Secretary of State Colin Powell and as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Health and Science, the first U.S. diplomat of ambassador rank appointed to a public health mission. He led American diplomatic efforts in the establishment of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, and in countering global infectious diseases and bioterrorism threats.
So much for the human delivery system. The weaponized virus method is even less plausible:
Here in a nutshell is the conclusion drawn in an article titled Ebola Bomb: Possible, But Not So Easy to Make, published in Live Science:
If some worst-case scenarios are to be believed, then terrorist groups could use the recent outbreak of Ebola in Africa to their advantage. By using the Ebola virus as a biological weapon, the story goes, these groups could wreak havoc around the globe.
But the idea that Ebola could be used as a biological weapon should be viewed with heavy skepticism, according to bioterrorism experts. Although deadly, Ebola is notoriously unstable when removed from a human or animal host, making weaponization of the virus unlikely, two experts told Live Science.
The article goes on to quote Dr. Peter Walsh of Cambridge, who believes “A bigger and more serious risk is that a group manages to harness the virus as a powder, then explodes it in a bomb in a highly populated area .. It could cause a large number of horrific deaths”. Dr. Walsh is a biological anthropologist, and thus far the best-credentialled of those arguing or the possibility of an Ebola attack on American or European soil, but the Live Science piece then follows up with some comments from (in my view, in my view) even more persuasive authorities:
[T]he idea of Ebola being harvested for use in a “dirty bomb” sounds more like science fiction than a real possibility to bioterrorism experts.
Dr. Robert Leggiadro, a physician in New York with a background in infectious disease and bioterrorism, told Live Science that although Ebola is listed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as a possible bioterrorism agent, that doesn’t necessarily mean the virus could be used in a bomb.
“The thing about Ebola is that it’s not easy to work with,” Leggiadro said. “It would be difficult to weaponize.”
And Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, COO of SecureBio, a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear security firm in the United Kingdom, said that claims like Walsh’s are an example of fear-mongering.
“The chance of the Zaire strai of Ebola being made into a biological weapon is less than nil,” de Bretton-Gordon said, referring to the strain of Ebola that is causing the current outbreak in West Africa. “It’s just not going to happen.”
And to quote from the Vocativ piece, Here’s one terror threat you can ignore, again, since it’s actually the only article I’ve seen that directly addresses the suggestions made by the IS poster:
A virus like Ebola survives only through bodily fluids passed on from one person to another. “You can’t just take the virus and pour it in a reservoir, and expect everybody in the city to get sick,” says William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University
One other point to consider — and this is where my interest in new religious movements once again proves its revelance to present day situations.
Aum’s interest in Ebola virus as a potential weapon was sincere enough that its leader, Shoko Asahara, had gone to Zaire with 40 of his followers in an attempt to obtain samples of the pathogen. Scientific American, in an article last month titled Weaponized Ebola: Is It Really a Bioterror Threat? wrote:
The Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo — infamous for setting off sarin gas in a Tokyo subway in 1995 — also looked into Ebola as a potential biological weapon. In 1992, they sent a medical group of 40 people ostensibly to help provide aid during an Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Their real purpose, however, was to collect some Ebola virus, as Amy Smithson, a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, noted in her 2000 report Ataxia. The effort was a “flagrant failure,” she says. “They did not get their hands on a culture.”
According to DW Brackett‘s Holy Terror: Armageddon in Tokyo however, Aum Shinrikyo “Minister of Health and Welfare“, biologist Seiichi Endo, nevertheless delivered a speech in Moscow two years later “in which he discussed the use of Ebola as a potential biological warfare weapon”.
The Scientific American piece concludes:
Even if Aum Shinrikyo had managed to gather samples of the Ebola virus, it would have been extremely difficult to kill large numbers of people in countries with a strong health infrastructure such as Japan. Once the virus had been identified and patients isolated, the pathogen would have been unlikely to spread widely. Still, any terrorist attempting to stoke fears rather than accrue a high body count could have some modicum of success with Ebola. “When talking about bioterror, it’s more about the terror than it is the bio,” Fauci says.
So there you have it.
As far as I can tell from the Index, Dr Ian Reader‘s book, Religious Violence in Contemporary Japan: The Case of Aum Shinrikyo, does not mention Ebola. It is, however, the definitive study of this religious movement with a penchant for biochemical weaponry.