CTR Home Internal  Relations and Communications Home About CTR Publication Schedule CTR Archives

December 6, 2001 Knowledge is the best remedy against bioterrorism: student seminar



by Robert Scalia

Forget the gas mask — get informed. It may not be the most reassuring advice for anyone who now cringe at the sight of a crop-duster, but it was the underlying message at a student-organized event called the Bio-Terrorism Public Awareness Conference held at Concordia on Nov. 30.

“There’s nothing you guys can do to prevent an attack,” explained Robert Laporte, a Concordia student specializing in cellular and molecular biology, who gave a lively history of biowarfare and described the most commonly used biological agents.

The responsibility to meet such attacks lies with all of us, and rapid intervention by local responders can limit injury and loss of life. “The only thing you can do is educate yourselves, try to understand the symptoms and the signs, and know how to help each other if need be.”

Laporte said it’s crucial to note unusual infections, such as flu outbreaks in summer or an entire office staff getting sick at the same time, like the recent anthrax cases in the U.S. “If you discover blisters on your hands, for example, don’t take the subway to go to the hospital. Call 911 and they will send the right people to your home.”

Classes of biological agents include bacteria, viruses, rickettsia, fungi and toxins. Smallpox is a deadly and highly contagious virus, but vaccine is efficacious during the first week of exposure. Antrax is not infectious, and if diagnosed early, it can be treated with antibiotics. Laporte’s seminar, punctuated by chilling slides, walked the audience through the history of bio-terrorism. From poisoning water supplies in ancient Athens to plague-infested fleas in Japan, people have experimented with biological warfare. Why? Because it’s relatively inexpensive, easy to produce, there’s a delay from onset until detection, and populations who are not immunized are vulnerable.

The deadliest biological and chemical agents, however, were developed under the watchful eye of Dr. Kanatjan Alibekov, a scientist in the Soviet program Biopreparat that blossomed during the 1970s. Alibekov defected to the U.S. in 1992 after funding for the program waned.

Laporte pointed out that roughly 60,000 scientists like Alibekov were effectively unemployed after 1992 and became attractive acquisitions for terrorist organizations and rogue nations jostling for international leverage. The U.S. proved with their “undercover” Project Bacchus that anyone can start a BW program with about $1 million (US), purchasing the necessary equipment from local stores and the Internet.

Larry Wayne Harris, a white supremacist leader in the U.S., was able to order the plague through the mail after learning of the sarin gas attack on Tokyo’s subway system in 1997, Laport said. When the FBI finally tracked him down, “he had enough anthrax in his trunk to kill all of Las Vegas.”

Laporte said, “Going out and buying a gas mask will not help you in a biological attack, even though they are selling like hotcakes now.” While they might help in chemical attacks, most deadly microbes are odorless and tasteless, meaning you would have to wear it all the time. “That’s just unthinkable.”

Major J.P.M. Tardif, from the Directorate of Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Defence, in Ottawa, gave an overview of the response of Department of National Defence and the Canadian Forces to nuclear, biological and chemical terrorist incidents. He said DND has maintained a response capability since the Montreal Olympic Games in 1976.

—Thanks to Sonia Ruiz, Department of Biology, for additional information.