Public health experts have stated that Biotechnology will provide the most effective defence against bioterrorism.
The completion of the human genome project, and developments in understanding of diseases like anthrax and botulism, will help in developing tests and vaccines that will protect society against bioterrorist attacks - as well as natural epidemics. The annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) heard from Colonel Dick Collins, head of the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. He said a release of anthrax bacteria near a city of half a million people would cause up to 93,000 deaths within a week.
Part of the problem would be identifying anthrax as the cause of death, however. Dr Craig Hunter, CEO of Celera Genomics, which has just published a version of the human DNA sequence, said new advances in biotechnology could speed up the process of identifying the nature of any attack from several days to just a few hours. "The way people have detected bacteria in the past is that they have grown them, to see what they look like, smell like, what properties they have," he said. "But with knowledge about the genetic code, we can multiply the amount of DNA in a specific species, so if it's smallpox, if it's meningitis, if it's anthrax, we can find it in a very precise fashion."This could prevent massive casualties, Dr Hunter said.
Public health expert Dr Margaret Hamburg said lethal agents such as botulism, anthrax and bubonic plague could be purchased illegally over the internet, and might be more appealing to a would-be terrorist than conventional weapons.
"I think there's reason to think that biological weapons are going to be increasingly attractive," she said. "I think that they're definitely cheaper, probably easier to get hold of, they're easier to conceal, there is information about them available on the internet and through other sources, and they are terrifying. She said biotechnology was more likely to be beneficial in defence, for protecting against outbreaks of disease, either from terrorist attacks, but more commonly in naturally occurring, freak epidemics.
Colonel Edward Eitzen said such outbreaks were considered more likely because of increased international travel and global trade. "I think that there's a lot of concern today about the issue of emerging diseases, new diseases that cross borders and come into our country.
"One of the agents that we worry about is a group of toxins called the botulinum toxins. They're the causative agents of the condition we know as botulism, which normally occurs in humans from contaminated foods."However, this is a toxin that really is one of the most lethal toxins known to man, that could be used as a biowarfare or a bioterrorism agent.
"We're currently working on a vaccine that uses biotechnology to take a fragment of the toxin - a non-toxic fragment - and splits it off from the rest of the molecule. "It creates a good antibody response and it also in animals protects against the lethal effects of the toxin itself. This is very exciting work. We can take a non-toxic fragment of the molecule and produce a safer, but still very effective vaccine that has no toxicity in and of itself."