- - Tuesday, November 26, 2019

The possible recourse by hostile states and terrorists to deploy weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in their warfare is considered the most catastrophic national security threat facing the United States and other countries around the world. In the worst-case scenarios, the deployment of WMD weapons in attacks, which consist of biological, chemical, radiological and nuclear devices, can cause tens of thousands of casualties and immense physical and economic damage.

Biological weapons, in particular, are horrifying because of their potential to quickly spread by infecting persons and communities so silently that detecting the presence of their early symptoms is problematic, making it difficult to contain infection.

While there are dozens of publications on the nature and impact of biological weapons, little is known about the medical scientists who bravely sacrifice their personal safety in examining these biological weapons-capable strains. In highly secure laboratories, they quickly respond to epidemic outbreaks when they occur anywhere around the world, and also attempt to discover and develop vaccine countermeasures.

In this insider account by Mark G. Kortepeter, a retired U.S. Army colonel and still-practicing physician, discusses his experiences from 1998 to 2009 as one of the country’s leading biodefense experts. At that time, he served as deputy commander of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) in Fort Detrick, Maryland, one of the most dangerous workplaces in the country.

Biologically-based infectious diseases are catastrophically lethal, the author writes, with outbreaks such as the Ebola virus, anthrax, or Zika virus — outbreaks caused by Mother Nature — even shaping the course of history and bringing down empires.

Attesting to the severity of the threat, the Ebola outbreaks in West Africa in 2014-16 and in the Congo, led to Ebola scares in the United States, as well. Dr. Kortepeter recounts these outbreaks in dramatic fashion, including his role in helping to protect U.S. forces in Iraq from bioweapons in March 2003, as well as his colleagues’ roles in bringing their expertise to Liberia in mid-2014 to perform Ebola lab diagnostics for infected patients.

Among the thousands of possible microbes that could be employed as a bio-weapon, Dr. Kortepeter, who is also a professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, cites the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) listing of the six highest threats as “Category A” agents, which he calls the “Chessmen of Doom.” These include the Pawn (botulism), the Rook (tularemia), the Knight (Ebola), the Bishop (plague), the King (smallpox) and the Queen (anthrax.)

While the Ebola epidemic was “nature-caused,” the author is highly concerned with hostile countries that seek to gain military advantage over their adversaries by employing bio-warfare to unleash deadly contagions against their enemies since these could wipe out enemy forces in the battlefield. North Korea, which is capable of cultivating, weaponizing and deploying 13 bio-warfare agents via rocket launchers, sprayers or infected humans, is highlighted. 

Some terrorist groups, Dr. Kortepeter adds, might be capable of weaponizing bio-weapons, as well. Why and how would terrorists employ such weapons? Unlike states, he explains, bio-terrorists differ because “depending on whom they target and whether they seek to kill people, sicken them, scare them, or just make a political statement, [they] may need smaller amounts than used in [state] warfare to assassinate a political figure, contaminate a salad bar, or kill a neighbor.”

It is more difficult, however, to detect terrorists’ bio-warfare programs because, Dr. Kortepeter explains, “we can’t predict which agent a terrorist might choose, and we’ll never have countermeasures for everything.” 

It is crucial to be vigilant against the potential bio-warfare threats by hostile states and terrorists, Dr. Kortepeter cautions, because if we always prepare to defend against the last war we will be unprepared to predict “how, when, or where the next pandemic will start.” He adds: “We know only one thing for certain: something else will come along when we least expect it, and it will be something we don’t anticipate.”

He concludes, in order to develop effective bio-weapon vaccines, “with each move made by the terrorists, our scientists need the flexibility to innovate in their countermeasures, just like on a chessboard.”

The scientists working on countermeasures to the work of hostile actors accept that their laboratory environments are highly dangerous.

For potentially lethal pathogens to be contained, extraordinary security measures are established because the pathogens’ “natural drive for survival requires them to infect in order to reproduce. So the government developed four ‘biosafety levels’ based on the pathogens’ ability to infect lab workers to thwart the pathogens from meeting their end game to reproduce. Like the multiple barriers we cross for airport entry from the parking lot to ultimately boarding the airplane, safety precautions and laboratory entry restrictions tighten with each successive safety level from Biosafety Level 1 (BSL-1) to BSL-4.”

To understand and appreciate the bravery of the scientists working to protect our nation from such bio-epidemics, as well as how the U.S. military goes about protecting its troops from such threats, “Inside the Hot Zone” is a terrifying, but indispensable guide. 

• Joshua Sinai is a Washington, D.C.-based consultant on counterterrorism issues.

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By Mark G. Kortepeter

Potomac Books, $34.95, 336 pages

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