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View Full Version : Biological Warfare (and you thought bird flu was bad)



tofu
2006-Jan-04, 04:19 PM
From a great episode of NOVA.
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/transcripts/2815bioterror.html



NARRATOR: In the Soviet Union, Popov isolated a gene that produces the protein myelin, which helps conduct nerve signals. He extracted the myelin gene from a small mammal and inserted it into the bacteria that causes Legionnaire's disease.

WILLIAM BROAD: One of his projects at Obolensk was to take Legionella, this sort of mild flu bug in humans, and make it worse, right?

SERGUEI. POPOV: It is better to say it is mild pneumonia.

WILLIAM BROAD: Mild pneumonia, yes, like flu pneumonia, yes.

SERGUEI POPOV: It is pneumonia-like symptoms, and the agent which incorporated new genes was capable to induce absolutely new symptoms which resembled in animals multiple sclerosis.

NARRATOR: Exposed to Popov's genetically engineered bacteria, rabbits became ill with Legionnaire's disease. Then something strange happened: their immune systems attacked the myelin around their own nerves, as if it were an invading pathogen.

SERGUEI POPOV: The majority of animals died of unusual symptoms because pneumonia went away. At the time symptoms developed, there was no bacterial agent inside the animals.

WILLIAM BROAD: So if you were a physician trying to figure out what happened...

SERGUEI POPOV: That would be impossible to find any kind of disease.

WILLIAM BROAD: No trace?

SERGUEI POPOV: So the animals were completely healthy, but several weeks later...it is better to say two weeks later, the first symptoms appeared. And those symptoms were severe paralysis and final death.


ok so, imagine this, we have what seems like a normal flu season. Say, 50% of your coworkers get sick. You get sick. Maybe you miss a day or two of work but it's no big deal. You drink a few cups of chicken soup and soldier on.

You get well. Everybody gets well. It was just the flu. Nothing was out of the ordinary.

Two weeks later, people start dying. At this point, it's too late to do anything about it. There's no point in quarantining people. The people who are dying aren't infected with anything. They aren't contagious. They've already had it and passed it on.

There is basically nothing that anyone can do.

Pretty scary, huh?

Doodler
2006-Jan-04, 04:27 PM
Evil evil evil stuff!!

There was a recent news article I saw that tied a gene causing myelin decay in neurons to Altzheimers...Paralysis is one thing, but this stuff could shred your mind on the way out.

Gah...

(Edit: What's the emote for a shocked expression?)

Lance
2006-Jan-04, 04:47 PM
(Edit: What's the emote for a shocked expression?):eek:

Doodler
2006-Jan-04, 04:55 PM
Thanks.

tofu
2006-Jan-05, 03:47 AM
Evil evil evil stuff!!

I can't figure out why this hasn't happened already. It sounds a whole lot easier than building a nuke. Maybe it's not bloody enough for terrorists.

SolusLupus
2006-Jan-05, 07:10 AM
There's a few reasons Terrorists aren't going around spreading biological diseases. The risk of contamination is one thing (of their allies or just themselves), and another is getting their hands on those biological weapons. The weapons aren't exactly out in the open with a sign that says, "Free Biological Weapon Pickup! Secret formula included!"

tofu
2006-Jan-05, 02:28 PM
another is getting their hands on those biological weapons. The weapons aren't exactly out in the open with a sign that says, "Free Biological Weapon Pickup! Secret formula included!"

I just thought it would be easier to get a common virus than it is to get enriched uranium.


The risk of contamination is one thing (of their allies or just themselves),

Yeah, I thought of that, but since every terrorist organization that I'm aware of is also fanatically religious, I assumed their attitude would be, "allah will protect the faithful" and "if you die it was god's will"

HenrikOlsen
2006-Jan-05, 02:41 PM
I just thought it would be easier to get a common virus than it is to get enriched uranium.
You can't really call a genetically modified virus "common". Read the whole thread.

Doodler
2006-Jan-05, 02:47 PM
I can't figure out why this hasn't happened already. It sounds a whole lot easier than building a nuke. Maybe it's not bloody enough for terrorists.

Bioweapons certainly lack the Mardis Gras effect. Far less dramatic, plus it doesn't destroy the symbols of your enemy's power like a good old fashion bomb. Dumping sarin or some other evil crapola in the HVAC system of the WTC would have killed more people than flying a plane into it, but it would have left the buildings intact to be used again.

Deaths are one objective, devastation's the other.

Plus the kind of chimearic techniques that are being done to create these hybrid beasts require some serious infrastructure and equipment, which even your best financed terrorist ain't gettin' in the middle of the sticks without raising a few eyebrows.

Maha Vailo
2008-Apr-03, 12:37 PM
Suppose a genetically-engineered pathogen like the one in the OP were to get out into the world, either by an accident or a terrorist attack. How far would it spread, and how many people would die?

- Maha Vailo

Infinity Watcher
2008-Apr-03, 12:53 PM
Suppose a genetically-engineered pathogen like the one in the OP were to get out into the world, either by an accident or a terrorist attack. How far would it spread, and how many people would die?

- Maha Vailo That is 6 million currency unit question, ultimatly it depends on the pathogen, method of initial distribution, infectivity, survival times outside the human body and goodness knows how many other factors (if the initial release was say out in siberia the population density might prevent it from spreading too quickly).

Maha Vailo
2008-Apr-03, 01:18 PM
OK, let me rephrase my question: Suppose the genetically-modified pathogen mentioned in the OP were released (probably airborne, as an accident or terror strike might most likely be) in a major city in a fairly industrialized, Western country. How many people might die, and how far would the pathogen spread?

- Maha Vailo

Neverfly
2008-Apr-03, 01:38 PM
OK, let me rephrase my question: Suppose the genetically-modified pathogen mentioned in the OP were released (probably airborne, as an accident or terror strike might most likely be) in a major city in a fairly industrialized, Western country. How many people might die, and how far would the pathogen spread?

- Maha Vailo

42.

Infinity Watcher, I accept cash, travelers cheques and money orders.


Ok, okokok... Maha Vailo, essentially it depends on a lot of factors. You are asking for guesswork here.
Most Likely- it would take a lot longer than Hollywood movies love to scare people with.

As far as how many might die? Depends on immunity- mutation and spread.

Currently, even the worst virus' in the world are controllable (to some degree...)
If you're thinking of a global panic like what you see in movies- try to remember that movies Up The Ante a lot to make a riveting story.

Maha Vailo
2008-Apr-03, 01:56 PM
OK, I've read up a little on the (wild-type, not GM) pathogen in the OP. It seems to like damp, humid seasons and survives for a long time in water. Apparently borne on water vapor (though I'm not sure about that). Not P2P spread. As with many infections, can be particluarly nasty to the old and the frail. Couldn't find any info on mutation rate and immunity, unfortunately.

Given this info, can you answer my question? Assume a typical summer day in a temperate climate.

- Maha Vailo

Neverfly
2008-Apr-03, 02:02 PM
OK, I've read up a little on the (wild-type, not GM) pathogen in the OP. It seems to like damp, humid seasons and survives for a long time in water. Apparently borne on water vapor (though I'm not sure about that). Not P2P spread. As with many infections, can be particluarly nasty to the old and the frail. Couldn't find any info on mutation rate and immunity, unfortunately.

Given this info, can you answer my question? Assume a typical summer day in a temperate climate.

- Maha Vailo

ahdunnohttp://us.i1.yimg.com/us.yimg.com/i/mesg/emoticons7/106.gif

Not my area.
But- Given the history of natural infections and the Modern take on Medicine and prevention and disease control- I would say not very far and not very many (Although even one death is tragic).

Doodler
2008-Apr-03, 02:21 PM
Depends on virulence, incubation, and vector. Virulence is the likelihood that someone exposed to the bug is going to catch it. More virulent, more likely. Most of your nastier natural bugs will bag 2/3 or so of a population (flus and whatnot). Incubation time determines how long after exposure you become infectious. Longer incubation times, the better your odds of dropping a successful quarantine.

Vector is the big one. Even more critical to a good war bug than making it a nasty way to die is getting it to you. Airborne respiratory is about as wicked as you can get, because its the hardest to isolate. Fluid exchange bugs only work well against people too ignorant to observe proper hygeine and handling (which is why Ebola does so well in Africa, and AIDS & hepatitis are still rampant among drug users).

Infinity Watcher
2008-Apr-03, 03:41 PM
OK, I've read up a little on the (wild-type, not GM) pathogen in the OP. It seems to like damp, humid seasons and survives for a long time in water. Apparently borne on water vapor (though I'm not sure about that). Not P2P spread. As with many infections, can be particluarly nasty to the old and the frail. Couldn't find any info on mutation rate and immunity, unfortunately.

Given this info, can you answer my question? Assume a typical summer day in a temperate climate.

- Maha Vailo Legionella is an interesting little bug since it has a tendency to crop up in dodgy air conditioning or shower systems, there was a UK outbreak a while back see the article here (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/cumbria/4250401.stm) and that despite being nasty didn't spread that far: according to the article 200 infected, 7 dead since the lack of person to person transmissibility means that once you identify the source, usually a building you cut off further infections and also you can start doing a sort of contact trace on people who may have been exposed by either entering the building or possibly just being near it (wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legionnaires%27_disease#Controlling_the_potential_ growth_of_Legionella_in_cooling_towers_and_air_scr ubbers)lists 6-10 km (up to about 6 miles) as the danger range which whilst a bit bigger than you might like isn't exactly massive, you're talking one city here, maybe a couple of close towns maximum) and treat them if necessary so bluntly it isn't much use as a weapon, I'd be interested to know what effect immuno-supression such as is used for treating RA had on the mice mentioned as infected with the modified strain since if they were having autoimmune demyelination the obvious intervention (to me) would be to immunosuppress the mice, perhaps not totally but enough might keep the progression under control of course I don't know if it would work but the point I'm making is that it may not be as dire as "nothing anyone can do by that stage".

DyerWolf
2008-Apr-03, 03:47 PM
Dengue outbreak in Brazil: 45,000 infected 67 dead. LINK (http://www.cnn.com/2008/WORLD/americas/04/03/brazil.dengue.ap/index.html)

closetgeek
2008-Apr-03, 03:47 PM
How long before there is a news story telling terrorists exactly where the weak spots are in our water supplies, should they ever want to take that route?

DyerWolf
2008-Apr-03, 03:49 PM
Dengue outbreak in Brazil: 45,000 infected 67 dead. LINK (http://www.cnn.com/2008/WORLD/americas/04/03/brazil.dengue.ap/index.html)

Maha Vailo
2008-Apr-03, 04:19 PM
I already mentioned the vector: water, and specifically water vapor at that (AC systems and water heaters are notorious carriers of the bug). No person-to-person transmission. Virulence (infectious dose) is unknown. Incubation period is a few hours for mild cases to a few days for more severe cases.

Given that info, is the GE bug in the OP a good candidate or a bad candidate for a bioweapon/terrorist's weapon?

- Maha Vailo

ETA: Looks like Infinity Watcher may have beaten me to the punch here.

Gillianren
2008-Apr-03, 04:23 PM
If virulence is unknown, the question cannot be answered.

Maha Vailo
2008-Apr-03, 05:14 PM
Well, I'm not sure what kind of a guess I could hazard with regards to virulence. Water vapor as a vector and the lack of person-to-person transmission suggest that it's fairly low, but correct me if I'm wrong.

- Maha Vailo

Moose
2008-Apr-03, 05:48 PM
Generally speaking, the diseases that are most individually dangerous tend to kill their hosts quickly enough that the spread tends to be limited. Diseases (like flus) that have longer incubation periods and spread wide and far tend to be much more survivable.

Ultimately, biological weapons aren't considered to be all that dangerous in the grand scheme of things. Conventional explosives tend to be much more effective.

What makes biological weapons "desirable" (for some twisted definition of "desirable") is that it's novel enough to instill a great deal of fear, regardless of whether or not that fear is justified. Even the hypothetical threat of bio weapons is more effective than bio weapons themselves.

RalofTyr
2008-Apr-03, 06:19 PM
shame on Nova, using scare tactics to boost ratings.

Maha Vailo
2008-Apr-03, 07:40 PM
OK, we've more-or-less figured out that the bug in the OP (GE or otherwise) is a very poor choice for a bioweapon. Now on to the next question: Are there already any extant autoimmune diseases in which myelin is the target? If so, how are they treated? The treatment for the aftereffects of this particular GE bug would probably be the same.

- Maha Vailo

Ilya
2008-Apr-03, 07:53 PM
What makes biological weapons "desirable" (for some twisted definition of "desirable") is that it's novel enough to instill a great deal of fear, regardless of whether or not that fear is justified. Even the hypothetical threat of bio weapons is more effective than bio weapons themselves.

Radiological weapons, aka "dirty bomb" are same thing, only more so. Great for instilling incredible -- and totally unjustified, -- amounts of fear. And removing the source of said fear is a lot harder than with bioweapons.

Infinity Watcher
2008-Apr-03, 08:31 PM
OK, we've more-or-less figured out that the bug in the OP (GE or otherwise) is a very poor choice for a bioweapon. Now on to the next question: Are there already any extant autoimmune diseases in which myelin is the target? If so, how are they treated? The treatment for the aftereffects of this particular GE bug would probably be the same.

- Maha Vailo I wouldn't go so far as to say it's a very poor choice but if you were looking to maximise transmission and hence mortality I can't say it's exactly top of the list. As for autoimmune demyelinating diseases I'm ashamed to say I had to go looking, I knew there was one but couldn't remember what it was, it is of course Multiple Sclerosis (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multiple_sclerosis). The wikipedia article has loads on it but as I said earlier, I don't have access to a copy of Kumar and Clark which is the textbook I'd want to cross-check most of the stuff on there but a quick scan of it looks reasonable.

Maha Vailo
2008-Apr-04, 02:07 AM
So basically this "MS bug" can talk the talk, but it can't walk the walk in real life. I'm guessing that if it were to be released on an unsuspecting city, we'd be talking maybe a few hundred to a few thousand casulaties, tops, in only one city or cluster of towns. Not too impressive.

Sorry, comrades, but you've gotta do better than that.

- Maha Vailo

m1omg
2008-Apr-04, 06:24 AM
Did have the sciencist who created the virus ANY CONSCIENCE?I mean, I would rather kill myself than create such a monster.

Jens
2008-Apr-04, 06:39 AM
One snippet, about chemical rather than biological weapons. I remember as a kid hearing that about nerve gas, and being terrified at the idea that an enemy country might drop it out of the sky and we'd never know about it until we started dying. In fact, in 1995 a cult tried killing people in the Tokyo subway using nerve gas (sarin). On crowded trains (four or six different trains if I remember correctly) they managed to kill 11 people. Everybody else survived. It's not really that easy to use those kinds of things effectively.

It's possible that a group of not sufficiently trained terrorists might well end up infecting themselves with a biological weapon and not doing any harm to anybody else.