Why COVID probably hasn’t helped bioterrorists, despite fears

A photo of mist coming from Aum Shinrikyo's headquarters in June 1993.In late June 1993, residents near Aum Shinrikyo's headquarters in Tokyo began reporting a foul smell to local authorities. Officials documented a mist coming from the building's roof and also took a sample from the building's exterior. Eventually, after the cult's infamous sarin attacks on Tokyo subways, group members would admit that the odor that residents had been smelling came from attempts to aerosolize anthrax bacterium. Credit: Department of Environment, Koto-ward, Tokyo, Japan / Emerging Infectious Diseases.

The cult Aum Shinrikyo is infamous for its deadly chemical weapons attacks on metropolitan Tokyo in the 1990s. Less well known is the ambitious biological weapons program that preceded the group’s chemical exploits. Aum tried to weaponize the anthrax bacterium, create a bacterial toxin, and develop ways to disseminate its wares. Despite the group’s enormous resources and expertise, however, its bioweapons appear to have caused no casualties at all. Some combination of delusion, a comically short attention span, bumbling, and possible sabotage appear to explain this abject failure. But Aum’s bioterrorism legacy is overall a mixed bag. Pessimists can point to the group’s troubling motivations and the fact that just a few missteps prevented potentially horrific consequences. Optimists can take heart that despite all its advantages, Aum wasn’t successful.

Few other terrorists have attempted to use bioweapons. The Global Terrorism Database documents over 200,000 terrorist incidents worldwide between 1970 and 2019, yet only about 38 involved biological weapons agents. Of those, only three caused more than one casualty. Despite this sparse historical record, the COVID pandemic has reenergized concern over bioterrorism; looking at the pandemic’s consequences—the deaths, economic contraction, and impacts on the military—some argue that COVID could both motivate and enable new bioterrorism attacks. In all likelihood, this isn’t the case. With the exception of apocalyptic groups, for most terrorists, bioweapons remain an impractical tool. And when it comes to groups like Aum, there are some steps authorities can employ to minimize the threat of terrorist bioweapons even further.

The bioterrorism threat. Aum sought to incite a cataclysmic global war between the United States, Japan, and others to cause the end-of-days. This led the cult, which once boasted tens of thousands of members in numerous countries, to seek nuclear and other non-conventional weapons, like the sarin it used on the Tokyo subways.

Aum’s bioweapons efforts included brewing up tons of what it thought was a yellowish stew of the bacterial toxin botulinum. Although the substance failed to kill mice in internal tests, Aum armed vans with sprayers to disseminate the stuff during attacks on high-profile targets in Japan. The result was utter failure. No one outside Aum apparently realized what had happened at the Japanese parliament building, a pair of US Navy bases, and other locations the group targeted.

Even if it had worked, Aum’s botulinum wouldn’t have spread contagiously like COVID, but the cult also reportedly hoped to acquire the Ebola virus during a trip to Zaire—a sign that at least some in the group wouldn’t have balked at releasing a virulent and transmissible germ on the world. (A non-contagious bioweapon like anthrax could also potentially kill and sicken hundreds of thousands of people.)

Aum confirmed that terrorists can try to use bioweapons. And they aren’t the only example. There have been several dozen recorded attempts by terrorists to acquire biological agents. After all, when the goal is apocalypse, the idea of unleashing a pandemic may seem logical.

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Another less well-known example of a group that was willing to spark a pandemic is the radical environmental group RISE, which sought biological weapons in the 1970s to wipe out humanity in order to repopulate the Earth with enlightened revolutionaries. RISE was based in Chicago and planned to release typhoid bacteria into the city’s water supply. Group members managed to acquire various pathogenic bacterial cultures, but their microbiology skills were largely self-taught. Chicago police arrested the group’s two leaders before they could cause any harm. They then jumped bail, hijacked a plane to Jamaica, and flew to Cuba, where one died a couple years later. The other leader returned to the United States and surrendered to police.

Of course, desire and capability to employ biological weapons do not always coexist. Biological weapons require obtaining a pathogen, specialized equipment to grow the pathogen in bulk, and the means to effectively deliver the agent. More crude bioterrorism attacks are possible, but significant capabilities are necessary for carrying out large and especially catastrophic attacks.

Could COVID have changed the equation? Aum and its ilk aside, terrorists haven’t shown a great deal of interest in bioweapons. But could the pandemic have changed their views? Certainly, many analysts and media organizations have explored this concern. For example, Vox recently ran a lengthy piece on “Why experts are terrified of a human-made pandemic” arguing that COVID is a warning of what’s to come: pathogens enhanced with gain-of-function research and DNA synthesis improving access to pathogenic material. Axios wrote about how the coronavirus reawakened bioweapons fears. An op-ed in the Los Angeles Times argued that COVID shows world leaders the harm bioweapons can cause.

The fears are well-justified in at least one regard: Thanks to scientific advances, the technical barriers to bioterrorism are going down. But COVID isn’t playing a big role there.

As a technical matter, COVID’s bolstering of terrorists’ abilities to acquire biological weapons is likely modest at best. The main potential concern is the proliferation of medical and public health resources aimed at combatting COVID and whether any of these can be reappropriated to serve bioterrorism schemes. In most cases, the answer is no. Nonetheless, new laboratories might create opportunities to steal equipment or pathogens. Terrorists might also be able to more readily acquire skills related to handling pathogenic material through the rapid training that occurred to meet pandemic needs. But these effects are likely minimal.

The pandemic has caused millions of deaths, a lot of illness, and huge economic and societal disruption. It has also shown the limits of vaccinations: 20 percent of Americans still remain hesitant to get their shots. Pandemic-prompted responses may also be less effective for non-contagious agents like Bacillus anthracis. For example, masking is unlikely to be effective response absent an unlikely early warning. Yet, it’s not at all clear that a terrorist group will see new opportunities for bioweapons based on how society has responded to COVID.

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Contrary to fears, the way some governments have responded to the pandemic might deter rather than encourage would-be bioterrorists. For example, the experience of the Operation Warp Speed program in the United States showed that governments can rapidly develop, disseminate, and update a novel vaccine. Efforts to bolster early warning systems, like waste-water surveillance programs, may likewise make a bioweapon less effective.

In short, those terrorists who would have pursued bioweapons before COVID will probably still pursue them, while terrorists who would previously have rejected bioweapons are unlikely to see sufficient new benefits in the COVID experience to override their concerns.

Well, what now? Though COVID has not changed the threat of bioterrorism much, there might be some worthwhile policy adjustments to make in light of the pandemic.

Law enforcement and national security agencies concerned with bioterrorism should prioritize groups with apocalyptic ideologies. These groups may have few viable alternatives to bioterrorism. Likewise, analysts should understand how ideological subgroups may differ in their response to COVID: For example, many radical environmentalists probably would be turned off from biological weapons because the groups are generally non-violent. Some sub-groups, however, like RISE, who are more accepting of violence, might be open to seeing a biological weapon as symbolic of nature’s vengeance on humanity. Aum, famously, recruited scientists to manage its weapons efforts. Analysts should be particularly interested in signs such groups are seeking specialized equipment, recruiting people with specialized bioweapons-related knowledge, or developing that knowledge themselves.

To the degree COVID excites policy interest in bioterrorism, those energies should be channeled towards larger public health preparedness. In practice, many aspects of responding to a bioterrorism incident are not terribly different than any naturally-occurring outbreak. Measures like epidemiological early warning, building hospital surge capacity, and exercises on pandemic response are all just as useful in responding to bioterrorism as a natural pandemic. Of course, policymakers need to consider how bioterrorism may affect the details: Bioterrorists may employ rarer, deadlier diseases; strategic targeting may complicate modeling and response to early outbreaks; and, in extreme cases, bioterrorists may alter the properties of known biological agents.

Analysts and policymakers also should ensure that the frustrations of COVID do not overly color threat assessments. They need to think carefully about how the COVID pandemic has actually interacted with the particulars of terrorist ideology and capability. The overall risk of bioterrorism is probably still quite low, but there are ways to push it even lower.

This article is derived from Going Viral: Implications of COVID-19 for Bioterrorism, a larger study published in the Sentinel, the West Point Counter Terrorism Center’s journal.

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Keywords: COVID-19, bioterrorism
Topics: Biosecurity

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