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William Broad: Confronting the threat of biological terrorism

William Broad has been a science writer for the New York Times since 1983. He has twice shared the Pulitzer Prize with colleagues. Along with two others, he authored "Germs: Biological Weapons And America's Secret War."

CNN: Welcome to William Broad. As co-author of a new book on biological weapons, your investigation is quite in-depth. What were some of the most startling facts you discovered?

BROAD: Our opening chapter shows how the United States has already been attacked. Learning about that was very surprising. Seven hundred Americans were sickened. The incident was not widely known. Also, learning about how far this black art had been developed around the globe, especially in the Soviet Union, was a little frightening. They made hundreds of tons of anthrax, smallpox, and deadly disease germs. Learning about the dimensions of that evil was deeply troubling.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Where was America attacked with biological weapons?

BROAD: It happened in Oregon in 1984. Read Chapter One. The outline is that a religious cult, led by a guy named Bhagwan Shree (meaning "sir God" in Sanskrit) Rajneesh. His group attacked a small town in Oregon. They were basically trying to take over the county, and they did this biological attack as a test whether they were able to sicken a lot of people, to knock them out on election day. They were going to pack the polls and get their candidates elected. It was successful. It wasn't a lethal germ, but salmonella, a common food poisoning.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you think there is a good chance of an attack happening now to us?

BROAD: I think the risk is low, and most experts peg it as a low risk. But it's rising. As we show in the book, there are troubling trends, and that's why we took the time to write this. The science is disseminating, and more troubling, the knowledge is disseminating. Three countries that built clandestine germ arsenals, the Soviet Union, Iraq, and South Africa, had thousands of scientists that were developing this black art. Today, we don't know where many of them are. The spread of that kind of knowledge is one of the long-term threats that this country needs to protect itself from.

CNN: What progress is being made to destroy biological weapons?

BROAD: I don't know today of any that exist. Saddam probably has them. Russia may secretly have them. There is a huge quiet global effort to improve a treaty that all the world's nations signed, most of them signed, in the 1970s, that banned such weapons. There's an attempt to put teeth in that treaty, to make it easier for inspectors to get into countries where we have suspicions that people are keeping those deadly germs. But those efforts have faltered, and one of my hopes is that the events of September 11 will renew that process.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What precautions, if any, can be taken by the general public to protect themselves and their families?

BROAD: I think this is a situation for collective security. The government is our best defense, as flawed and incapable as it sometimes seems. They're building stockpiles of medicines, improving the public health system, taking lots of prudent steps to defend us from these low level threats. Buying gas masks or stocking up on antibiotics won't do a lot of good, because you wouldn't know when a germ attack took place. They're stealthy. No terrorist will announce that they just spread anthrax. You have to know about it pretty quickly, otherwise your gas masks and antibiotics won't do any good. What we need to do is get the government on the stick, have them develop better detectors, have them develop better diagnostic tools, have them improve the public health system, so that we can be prepared to deal with an attack if it happens.

Message Board:War on terrorism  

The best news is that intelligence, good intelligence, can prevent an attack. Right now, we are in the midst of a global intelligence love fest, in which all kinds of nations are sharing information about the terrorist threat. I think that means we're safer today than we were on September 10th.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Have the Russians confirmed that any of their biological weapons are missing?

BROAD: They say that none are missing, but also say that they renounced the stuff back in 1992, actually earlier than that. Boris Yeltsin said that they had had a secret program, but stopped it. Their official position is that they no longer have biological weapons. Whether that's true or not is open to question, because they haven't opened up their secret facilities.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Are smallpox and anthrax the main diseases that the USA is concerned with, or do you think that there are less well-known diseases that pose a larger threat?

BROAD: Smallpox and anthrax are high on the list, but there are lots of things the government worries about. Something you seldom hear about are agricultural blights. The government worries that a terrorist might attack the economy by spreading an agricultural disease.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Why doesn't the UN provide a global immunization program?

BROAD: Maybe someday it will. The UN eradicated smallpox in the '70s through a global immunization program. It no longer exists in human populations. As terrorist fears arise, maybe they'll embark on a new campaign of immunization. But there are risks and benefits to immunization. It's not a free lunch. Every once in a while, someone has a bad reaction. Medical authorities have to carefully weigh the risks and benefits to make sure that we're not doing something that overall creates more problems than it solves.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: How much smallpox vaccine is available in the US at present?

BROAD: 7-15 million doses. The government last year put out a contract to make 40 million more doses.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: How could anyone get hold of something that is supposedly knocked out, like smallpox?

BROAD: It's knocked out of human populations, but the virus still exists in at least two government laboratories, and maybe more. There's some small chance it might get out.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: A few years back I read the "Hot Zone" and one scary revelation has stuck with me ever since. Is it true that an infected person can cause a world-wide crisis just by engaging in air travel?

BROAD: I would say no, in general. But any generalization has exceptions. For instance, if a terrorist got hold of smallpox, he could ignite a global epidemic. Most experts consider that highly unlikely. A terrorist would have to think about it very hard, because they would stand a good chance of killing people in their homeland, their own families, and people they presumably love.

CNN: Do you have any final thoughts for us today?

BROAD: I think that because of the tragedy of September 11, a lot of the half measures we report about in the book will go right to the front of the government's to do list. The good news is that the secret war we write about has gone public, and protections will increase over time.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today, William Broad.

BROAD: My pleasure.

William Broad joined via telephone from New York. CNN provided a typist for him. The above is an edited transcript of the interview on Tuesday, October 02, 2001.


• "Germs" Web page
• William Broad Bio

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