NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

The "Good" News about Biological Weapons

September 20, 2001

With the nation alert to the possibility of terrorists someday using biological weapons against us, the following information from former FDA official (1979-94) and molecular biologist Henry I. Miller may be reassuring.

Although bacteria can sicken or kill an exposed individual, their ability to spread and cause "secondary" cases is limited. As proof, during the past half century, laboratories working with agents such as anthrax and bubonic plague have accidentally released organisms -- creating small-scale biological warfare "experiments."

  • From 1947-1973 there were 109 laboratory-associated infections from mishaps -- but not a single secondary case, such as the infection of a member of the patient's family.
  • Medical literature reveals only a handful of people secondarily infected -- notably, in 1948-50 there were a few cases of people who came into contact with materials or individuals at a lab conducting research into Q fever.
  • Most biological agents act like the chemical sarin, released in the Tokyo subway in 1995 -- with injury limited to those exposed initially.

The appearance of symptoms would be more delayed for a biological agent than a chemical one. The incubation period for bubonic plague is two to seven days, and for anthrax two to three days. Most bacterial infections can be treated with antibiotics, assuming the organism is identified soon enough, and there are enough drugs on hand.

Thus, the prospect of biological weaponry should elicit not hysteria, but vigilance and planning.

Source: Henry I. Miller (Hoover Institution), "Biological Warfare: The 'Good' News," Wall Street Journal, September 20, 2001.

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