Event Recap: Bioterrorism, Science & Security

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In 1993, bioterrorists in Japan attempted an aerosol dissemination of B. anthrasis, the Anthrax pathogen. But Japanese authorities did not discover the attack until 1999. After neighbors reported a foul, gassy substance spewing from a nearby building, samples of the substance were collected… then stored in a lab until 1999. Cultures of the substance revealed it to be B. anthrasis, but thankfully, it was also revealed to be the vaccine strain, which is harmless to humans. Still, the scenario is frightening. “Here is an instance where an organization had the resources and the expertise, and utilized them,” said Stephen Pagagiotas, a Public Health/Emergency Coordinator with the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and one of four speakers at The Exchange’s “Bioterrorism: Science & Security” event in Los Angeles. “You can see some of the implications that could’ve occurred if this happened in an urban, downtown area.”

The aerosol dissemination in Japan is one of the many stories told during the two-hour event, held October 4th at the Directors Guild of America. During the Q&A session, the speakers were asked by an audience member to tell stories of thwarted bioterrorist attacks. Vahid Majidi, Assistant Director of the FBI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate, told several such stories, from a woman who baked shigella into muffins to poison her coworkers to a case of enriched uranium in Georgia (the country, not the state). Special Agent James Peaco, the Weapons of Mass Destruction Coordinator for the FBI Los Angeles Field Division shared a story of a missing shipment of americium-beryllium, a neutron emitter. The shipment was reportedly received by the company but the individual who signed for the shipment did not exist. “It got our blood moving pretty good,” Peaco recounted. “The configuration it was in, all you would need to add is explosives and you’ve got a dirty bomb.” To make a long story short, three employees stole the shipment for non-bioterrorism plans but it was recovered quickly. 

From left to right: David Relman, Stephen Papagiotas, Jonathan Knight, Jerry Zucker, Ann Merchant, Vahid Majidi, James Peaco and Steven Martinez.

Earlier in the evening, both Majidi and Peaco spoke about the FBI’s efforts to prevent a bioterrorist attack in America. Majidi explained how the FBI coordinates with overseas countries to gather “lessons learned.” Peaco spoke of the FBI’s preventative measures in America, such as tracking drugstore purchases for any suspicious activities. The FBI also works with the CDC, explained Papagiotas, including information sharing, which can be critical to determining whether an incident is a simple case of food poisoning or an attack, like the woman with the shigella muffins. 

But the speaker to answer the question on everyone’s mind was David Relman, a Professor of Medicine and Microbiology at Stanford University. “How real is the threat of bioterrorism?,” Relman asked in his presentation. Very real, he said. Relman explained the science behind bioterrorism, including if a wide-scale attack is scientifically plausible (hint: it is) and the most likely scenarios for attacks (by individuals, says Relman, not groups). Relman also reminded the audience that science is evolving, which means bioterrorism will evolve too, and as a country, we are not as prepared for an attack as we’d like to think.

The night wasn’t all doom and gloom though. To end his presentation, Papagiotas asked an audience member to choose, out of five pictures of white substances, which was anthrax. The audience member correctly guessed “none,” so Papagiotas handed over the prize: a Giant Microbes Anthrax Plush, the only way we can ever imagine anthrax will be cute.

The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.