Once a year a select group of scientists and engineers gathers at Dugway Proving Ground, a salt flat in the Utah desert 65 km from the nearest traffic light. They are there by invitation of the U.S. Defense Department's Joint Program Office for Biological Defense to compete in an unusual showdown: to field-test their systems for detecting biological warfare agents.
This is no idle contest; this is serious business, critical to national security. As the recent contentious negotiations over the 29-year-old Biological and Toxins Weapons Convention have shown, concern over the possibility of a biological attack is mounting worldwide.
Shortly before the trial gets under way, the competitors make final adjustments to their devices and then retire to trailers nearly a kilometer away. Moments later, an aerosol cloud containing spores of Bacillus globigii is released into the air about 90 meters from the devices. This harmless bacterium simulates a real bioagent such as Bacillus anthracis, the germ that causes anthrax.
As the aerosol cloud passes, the devices collect and prepare air samples, and then feed them through diagnostic tests, looking for the bioagents by using highly specific molecular interactions [see photo]. High-tech versions of the proverbial coalminer's canary, these devices are designed to determine the type and concentration of the agent within minutes, enough time to let soldiers on the battlefield don protective gear. Data are sent to a remote sensing post by wireless modem.
At the trial's conclusion, the biodetectors are rated on how well and how quickly they identified the surrogate agent, as well as on their ruggedness, power consumption, weight, size, reliability, and safety.
The ultimate goal of the Dugway trials, and of more controlled experiments in the laboratory, is to develop portable, fully automatic, remote sensing systems that can detect a variety of known and novel biological agents before troops on the battlefield are exposed. The dream solution, though still many years off, is a wristwatch-sized biodetector capable of rapid detection, rapid diagnostics, and, potentially, rapid treatment.
What are biological weapons?
Biological weapons include bacteria, viruses, and toxins that are spread deliberately in air, food, or water to cause disease or death to humans, animals, or plants. Bacteria and viruses work by entering the body, multiplying, and then overcoming the immune system. Examples include Bacillus anthracis, Yersinia pestis (which causes plague), and Variola major (smallpox). Biotoxins are the poisons given off by living entities, such as botulinum toxin, produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum, and ricin, which can be isolated from castor oil seeds. According to Plague Wars, Tom Mangold and Jeff Goldberg's history of biological warfare [see To Probe Further], Western counterproliferation agencies recognize 23 bacteria, 43 viruses, and 14 toxins as potential threats.
A few grams of a dried bioagent such as anthrax could infect thousands of people. Symptoms of infection would follow within a week and deaths in the days thereafter. Certain biological weapons could also cause destabilizing epidemics. Smallpox, for example, can be easily transmitted from one infected individual to another. Anthrax, in contrast, is deadly when inhaled but is noncommunicable.
In the past, only naturally occurring organisms and toxins were considered real threats. Recent advances in genetic engineering, though, have paved the way to designer bioagents. Scientists practicing such "black biology" have already created drug-resistant strains of anthrax, plague, and tularemia (a highly infectious disease that causes skin ulcers and pneumonia). Biowarfare agents could also be bred to be far more virulent and long-lived.
To an aggressor, the appeal of such weapons is that they attack populations, leaving infrastructure intact; they are effective in very small amounts; they can be produced at low cost in a short period of time; and protection and detection are difficult.
In wargames of a fictional attack on Oklahoma City, it was predicted that an infectious agent such as smallpox could spread to three million people throughout the continental United States within 12 weeks of an attack. Thankfully, the world has yet to see such a full-blown assault. But for the reasons above, there is increasing concern that bioweapons will become the preferred weapon of mass destruction.
To be sure, fabricating devices to disperse biological agents is not trivial. Typically, one needs to create an aerosol cloud containing just the right particle size--15 µm is the most lethal when inhaled. What's more, some agents are quite fragile and die quickly in sunlight; others, though, are more robust. Efforts in the former Soviet Union and Iraq succeeded in generating vast quantities of plague and anthrax agents, as well as the means to deliver them--by aircraft equipped with spray tanks, cluster bombs, and missiles with multiple warheads.
In short, it is far easier to make a biological weapon than to create an effective system of defense.