Philosophical Society of Washington

Minutes of the 2152nd Meeting

Speaker: Pierre Noel, National Institutes of Health
Topic: “Bioterrorism”

President Collins called the 2152nd meeting of the Philosophical Society of Washington to order at 8:20 p.m. on November 8, 2002. The Recording Secretary read the minutes of the 2151st meeting and they were approved.

The speaker for the 2152nd meeting was meeting was Pierre Noel of the United States Air Force and advisor to the Defense Department, State Department and the National Institutes of Health. The title of his presentation was “Bioterrorism.”

Bioterrorism became a reality in the United States a little more than a year ago. Every American became sensitized to bioterrorism after the anthrax letter events of October 2001. In a world where politics and economic trends are dictated by the United States, biological weapons offer an asymmetric advantage to political or religious groups waging war with the United States. Understanding the biology, mechanisms of toxicity, modes of spread and current preventive and therapeutic measures, lays the groundwork for future research in biodefense.

The speaker discussed the biologic and physical characteristics that render a biological agent to be a potential weapon. There are three types of bioweapons: pathogens or infectious agents, toxins or poisons and biomodulators that temporarily change an organism. These weapons can be used against people, animals, plants or material. They can be lethal or incapacitating and are often transmissible or infectious. However, these other characteristics determine how effective a biological agent is as a weapon. These characteristics include virulence, contagiousness, availability, ability to weaponize the agent, delivery, stability and finally the fear factor associated with a particular agent such as small pox.

There are two types of bioterrorists – state sponsored such as Iraq and non-state sponsored such as Al Qaeda. Non-state terrorists have special difficulties using bioterrorism as an effective weapons system because there are huge logistics problems in obtaining an agent, growing the agent, weaponizing it and finally delivering the agent. Acquisition sources include clinical specimens, commercial supply houses, culture collections such as the American Type Culture Collection or ATCC, and universities. It was pointed out that Iraq obtained bacterial source cultures from the ATCC right here in Rockville in the late 1980's.

The speaker next discussed possible bioweapon delivery systems. These include contamination of water supplies, which is unlikely since it is very difficult to implement; contamination of food supply, which is somewhat easier; and aerosol delivery, which is the easiest and most effective. The last method discussed was use of explosive munitions, which just don't work as well with bioweapons.

The speaker went on to discuss the history of bioterrorism. He pointed out that as early as 600 BC, the Assyrians were poisoning wells. Centuries later, in 1346, the city of Kaffa on the Black Sea was under siege by the Tartars from western Asia. At the time, the majority of the European population was afflicted with plague and the Tartars were no exception. Thinking they could end the siege by passing on the disease, they catapulted plague-infected human corpses over the city walls. However, plague was spread by infected fleas, which had a very limited survival when not on a live host. Thus, this method of spreading plague to Kaffa was not very effective. The speaker also described contemporary examples of biological warfare programs.

The speaker then discussed the current treaties and conventions including the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention or BWC, which prohibits the development, production, stockpiling and acquisition of such weapons. He noted that both Iraq and the Soviet Union were signatories to the 1972 BWC while continuing bioweapon development into the 1980's.

Lastly, Mr. Noel discussed current preventive and therapeutic measures. Concerning what can be done, he pointed out that we need improved intelligence, enforceable treaties and conventions, credible inspections, international support for effective deterrence programs and improvement in our public health system.

Mr. Noel then closed his presentation and kindly answered questions from the floor. President Collins thereupon thanked Mr. Noel for the Society, welcomed him to membership, announced the next meeting and made the usual parking announcement. He then adjourned the 2152nd meeting to the Social Hour at 9:40 p.m.

Attendance: 47
Temperature: 21°C
Weather: Clear
Links: Bio of Dr. Noel

Respectfully submitted,
Bill Spargo
Recording Secretary

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