December 6, 2023

SyFy or SyFact: Ebola as a weapon of terror?

By Adjunct Professor Heather L. Holt

American science fiction television thrillers such as “Helix” or “Strain” bring to life the potential consequences of a disease outbreak. Both television series focus on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) researchers investigating viral and pathogenesis outbreaks of unknown diseases being utilized as weapons for special group agendas. As the plot thickens, viewers are left pondering the implications of the spread of these diseases to the world population.

However, the use of biological weapons has occurred sporadically for centuries, and the increasing probability of a serious bioterrorism incident is not science fiction. The recent outbreak of Ebola has International news outlets discussing the possibility of terrorist organizations obtaining the Zaire strain of Ebola from West Africa and creating a “weapon of terror” by harnessing the virus into a powder, disseminating the powder in densely populated areas, creating a large number of causalities.

Is this science fiction or is this “science fact?”

Biological warfare and bioterrorism encompasses the use of bacterial agents, viruses, toxins, and anti-crop or agricultural agents. One of the first recorded uses of a biological toxin in battle was in 184 B.C. when Carthaginian soldiers used snake toxin to achieve victory. Seven days after September 11, 2001, anonymous letters laced with anthrax spores only confirmed the ability of a terrorist to use a biological agent as a weapon, and amplified the public concern about the nation’s vulnerability to a bioterrorism attack.

The CDC categorizes biological agents into three categories based on the agent’s ability to be disseminated, the mortality rates, the ability to create public panic, and the actions required for public health preparedness and response. Category ‘A’ agents pose the highest risk to national security, and these agents include anthrax, plague, smallpox, and viral hemorrhagic fever (Ebola).

The World Health Organization declared the Ebola outbreak in West Africa as the world’s deadliest Ebola outbreak to date, with more than 1000 deaths, and a 90% case fatality rate. Ebola is a viral illness that is spread between humans by direct contact with infected blood, bodily fluids, and organs, and indirectly through contact with contaminated environments. Unlike anthrax and smallpox, there is no vaccine to prevent Ebola and no specific treatment to cure Ebola. The incubation period can be from two days to three weeks, making the disease difficult to diagnosis and to treat.

Ebola can be disseminated via aerosol and it is contagious enough to spread through close contact and bodily fluids. Additionally, the risk of a pandemic increases because of the long incubation period, and the difficulty in detecting and diagnosing the outbreak. However, would Ebola be an effective biological weapon for a terrorist organization?

The first issue with creating a biological weapon out of Ebola is the terrorist organization’s ability to obtain a microbial seed stock for the agent. A terrorist organization would have to obtain a live host infected with the virus, transport the host to a suitably equipped Category 4 laboratory that could extract the virus, and process the virus into a weaponized biological agent through an enrichment process designed to ensure the survivability of the agent during harsh climatic conditions. This is not an easy task. The process would be very time-consuming and quite expensive for a terrorist organization to complete.

Ebola is also not as stable as other Category A agents. Ebola is very sensitive to sunlight, extreme temperatures, and once it is extracted from a host requires a particular environment including temperature and humidity to survive. Assuming a terrorist organization has the funds and scientific capability to extract the virus from a host and create a weapon, it is likely that the climatic conditions found in a large city would kill the virus upon dissemination. A terrorist organization is more likely to utilize an agent that will survive an attack.

Finally, Ebola is not transmitted airborne from person-to-person. Ebola relies on the transmission and direct contact with infected bodily fluid. Ebola is considerably less contagious than a virus like the Pneumonic plague. The bacteria that causes Pneumonic plague is found worldwide with a 90% fatality rate without early antibiotic treatment (typically the first 24 hours).

Terrorists find bioterrorism an attractive alternative to conventional weapons because bioterrorism is cheap, accessible, easily delivered, has limited detection, creates mass causalities, is hard to prevent, and has the potential to create widespread panic and social disruption.

With the list of possibilities available and evaluating context of the threat, it is less likely that a terrorist organization would create a biological weapon from the virus. However, it is important for the U.S. to stay prepared to deal with the threat of a bioterrorism. The surge of bioweapon availability, the increased terrorist interest, and the growth of terrorist groups, increases the overall threat of a terrorist organization successfully orchestrating a bioterror attack.