The September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon produced a wave of fear that bioterrorism was next on the horizon and, along with it, an impression that the U.S. medical establishment was ill prepared to cope with what would be a vast catastrophe, with millions of Americans lying sick, dead or dying. The death of a Florida man from anthrax and the exposure or infection of others in multiples states further fueled these fears. The resulting wave of general hysteria, with civilians buying up gas masks and Cipro as if there were no tomorrow, established beyond a doubt that microorganisms are remarkably successful as instruments of mass terror. Their potential as weapons of mass destruction, however, is far less clear.
The technology of biological warfare in the modern sense of disseminating viral, bacterial or rickettsial aerosols by means of biological bombs, spray nozzles or other devices goes back at least to 1923. It was then that French scientists affiliated with the Naval Chemical Research Laboratory detonated pathogen bombs over animals in a field at Sevran-Livry, 15 kilometers northwest of Paris, killing many of the test subjects.
This article was originally published with the title Evaluating the Threat.