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Australia's First Bioterrorism Attack

Now, I never condone biological warfare. It's bad ju ju and I am morally opposed to it, especially as a microbiologist. That being said however...

I find the 'attack' on the Indonesian embassy kind of amusing, in a black humour kind of way. I mean, really, I just know how sensationalised this event is going to be, and how much work is is practically going to guarantee me and people like me in the future... and it's all due to that silly girl (silly for getting caught or silly for going about the trial the way she did) Schappelle oh-what-an-odd-name-I-have Corby.

I'm not too fussed about the incident itself because, quite frankly, I'm pretty sure that the "Bacillus-type bacteral powder" is going to turn out to not be anthrax. And even if it were anthrax, the chances of it making anyone ill are pretty darn slim, particularly because I'm sure anyone who came in contact with it is already on antibiotics and thus, largely, completely protected from disease.

I mean, really, Bacillus is so dull, old-school, and really not as scary as people make out. And none-too-hard to grow, either. Cook some brown rice, then leave it in a warm place for a few days. Boom - you have yourself some Bacillus which can make people very, very sick (if they eat it). Welcome to the world of bioterrorism.

This is what people don't seem to understand. Bacteria cover everything. EVERYTHING. That whole thing about washing your hands ater you go to the bathroom? Within a couple of hours your hands are going to be covered with bacteria from your unmentionables anyway, because unless you autoclaved your hands (not advisable), you're going to leave viable bacteria/spores behind which will just grow back. Did you know that one of the nastiest lower-respiratory tract disease causing bugs is found naturally in the nose?

I mean, these people (who ever they are) aren't even *trying*. That and they have doomed the little miss Corby to certain further imprisonment - no government these days buckles under such petty threats. And what is more petty that a Bacillus?! (Well, maybe E. coli, I suppose...) For the love of Koch, Australia is host to one of the most unpleasant non-heamorrhagic visuses I have ever heard of from a readily easily-accessable source - much easier than growing enough Bacillus spores to make a frightening amount of 'white powder of biological origin'.

I am full of contempt for the entire situation. Although, I tip my hat to the emergency responce teams; they seem to have done an excellent job.

Comments

( 32 comments — Leave a comment )
designadrug
Jun. 2nd, 2005 02:00 am (UTC)
'white powder of biological origin'.

What... like flour? :)

The "attacks" in the US using Anthrax were actually frighteningly effective.

Sure, not a lot of people died, but people did die, and sometimes it was because an envelope they handled had been in contact with the anthrax laden one. And several other people were treated for dematological anthrax infections.

I say effective because as an act of terrorism it scared far more people than the September 11th attacks. People I worked with were refusing to touch mail they received at home that had Florida postmarks. The woman in the mail room was using latex gloves and a filter mask when opening the mail. And it was endemic across the country.

(The only incident I have ever seen get a better Terror:Effort ratio was the Beltway Sniper - he had whole States terrified of simply driving their cars on or near the freeway.)

However, with the ease of genetic manipulation and the public availability of genetic data Bacillus might seem a bit passe. Creating a strain of Streptococcus, S.Epidermidis or E.Coli with a simple chemically induced plasmid containing the toxin from C.Botulinium, C.Tetani, C.Perfringens would be simple, easy to ferment, easy to spread and very very deadly. Kitchen bioterrorism. Put some work in and track down some fun, and easily available, stuff (Ross River Fever, Dengue, Bairnsdale Ulcer, Meningococcus etc) and you do some real damage. With some patience, livestock and some kidnap victims you could probably quite easily create a haemorragic influenza.

But we're educated. We know to be scared of these things. We know how dangerous flu can be.

But it's the famous names that carry the weight in the public mind. And terrorism is not meant to be primarily a physical attack but a psychological one.

Bubonic Plague. Tuberculosis. Anthrax. Ebola.
designadrug
Jun. 2nd, 2005 03:03 am (UTC)
I guess the point I failed to make here is that my choice of agent/GMO would depend on if I wanted a tool for bioterrorism or a genuine bioweapon.
designadrug
Jun. 2nd, 2005 03:06 am (UTC)
And thanks! Your post was thought-provoking in the extreme, and I'd forgotten how much fun it is to hypothesize on things like this! I'm surrounded by synthetic chemists and physicists so I don't get to exercise the biological half of my brain much :)
designadrug
Jun. 2nd, 2005 03:09 am (UTC)
....not that the other half is cybernetic or anything...
delwyn
Jun. 2nd, 2005 07:39 am (UTC)
and you expect us to believe it isn't, after the number of replies you made to your own comment?

Someone hand me the EMP-gun - we've got another pesky cyborg infestation *grin*
designadrug
Jun. 2nd, 2005 11:01 pm (UTC)
Hah! EMP will do you no good.

I wrap my head in aluminium foil!
delwyn
Jun. 2nd, 2005 11:16 pm (UTC)
Oh no! Foiled again!
designadrug
Jun. 2nd, 2005 11:30 pm (UTC)
*groan*
delwyn
Jun. 3rd, 2005 01:52 am (UTC)
no complaining - you walked right into that one ;)
designadrug
Jun. 3rd, 2005 01:54 am (UTC)
I may have, but at least my cybernetic brain is less susceptible to damage.
delwyn
Jun. 3rd, 2005 02:03 am (UTC)
but only until a few days after the warranty runs out
designadrug
Jun. 3rd, 2005 02:19 am (UTC)
I knew I shouldn't have got an iPod Mini installed...
mareth_redorb
Jun. 2nd, 2005 06:07 am (UTC)
I remember being very upset when they developed a urine test to detect Legionella. Up to that point my plans to eradicate smokers from the planet had been based on the fact that Legionella could only be diagnosed with a chest x-ray to find the scar tissue in the lungs and smokers have so much scarring in the lungs that Legionella was effectively undetectable until it was too late.

Not that I put that much thought into this plan of course.
designadrug
Jun. 2nd, 2005 06:36 am (UTC)
Of course you didn't.

Infected filters? Saliva rehydrates spores which are then inhaled?
mareth_redorb
Jun. 2nd, 2005 10:09 pm (UTC)
Something like that. I think my original plan called for introducing an inhibitor that prevented the legionella from reproducing until it was exposed to a concentrated amount of nicotine in the host.
miss_rynn
Jun. 2nd, 2005 05:41 am (UTC)
Did you hear about those virologists in America who wanted to prove a point? They ordered different strings of DNA sequences from the same company of something like 500-1000 bp long. Then they assembled these sequences together in a lab.

And made small pox.

Laws about such things have now been changed (because, you know, they scientists DID make their point)... but still. If they could do it, how hard would it be for someone with a DNA synthesizer to do it?
designadrug
Jun. 2nd, 2005 06:31 am (UTC)
I was thinking about Smallpox when I was talking about weapon vs terror...

What you say is scary. Or it would be if I was born after 1976, or after 1965 in the USA (unless I was a US serviceman at some point).

:P

With a synthesiser? It'd be damn hard to stuff it up. And chicken pox is close enough if you want to introduce it to a vector for the 0th generation.

Gods. Now I'm really thinking about how easy it would be. The genomic data is public domain, the synthesiser is only a couple of grand, PCR amplifiers are a dime a dozen, reagents are cheap-ish. Holy shit, there are few controls if any on any of that gear.

Shit, having really thought it I'm now in favour of mandatory licensing for DNA synthesisers and PCR amplifiers. Fuck it - PCR is so damn simple you can do it on your kitchen stove with a saucepan and a thermometer. The DNA and RNA primers would be where control would be at...yeah license the synthesisers. Transfecting gear is dirt simple too. Yikes. And I used to point out to people how simple atomic bombs are. This is baaaad.

Bit of research and we could get a paper or a newspaper article out of this line of thinking...
miss_rynn
Jun. 2nd, 2005 11:42 pm (UTC)
Yup. It's funny, because Smallpox is such a tiny little virus. :)

And I'm pretty sure I was vaccinated against it a long time ago (what with living in african countries and all)... as well as tuberculosis twice. That's a funny story, you see, because they thought I had it when they vaccinated me the second time. Mmmm - chest X-rays.
designadrug
Jun. 3rd, 2005 01:10 am (UTC)
In the USA large scale vaccination programmes finished in about 1965. Most of the rest of the world it was 1976. The US still vaccinate their servicemen against it.

Considering your age, you'd would be a lucky camper indeed if you were immunised. Congratulations.

I was once talking a friend and she was saying how she was getting her kids vaccinated against measles and chickenpox. I couldn't believe it. I mean, when I was a kid those diseases were more a *nuisence* that anything else. "Your cousin has Chicken Pox, go play with her."
miss_rynn
Jun. 2nd, 2005 11:57 pm (UTC)
The problems with those genetic modifications (ie, sticking the gene for the botulism toxin in E. coli) will always keep them from being used for bioterrorism/warefare, and I'll tell you why (because I am a smart-ass).

First of all, it's not normally one gene but two that you need to clone in (the gene for the protein itself, plus the gene that makes the protein fold properly). Second of all, you need to whack in a promoter gene of some description, something which triggers the bacteria to make the protein (for example, when it comes in contact with a human protein, usually depending on where you think the bacteria will set up shop - a lung protein if it is to be inhaled, for example). Thirdly, you need to put in a selective agent, like an antibiotic resistance gene, with which you can select for your bugs which have the toxin genes in them.

That's a whole lot of genes. The thing about bacteria is that they can only physically fit so much DNA inside. The other thing is that all of those gene splices are quite hard to do. And, finally, once you *do* manage to make this bug, even if it does manage to infect a host (ie, your target human), unless there is any selective pressure, the bacteria will lose any extraneous genes (because that's what bacteria do - producing stuff like proteins takes a whole lot of energy and effort, and if they don't need to, they won't do it), including you're carefully designed mutant.

So, you know, it's not quite as easy as Hollywood says it is. :)
designadrug
Jun. 3rd, 2005 12:21 am (UTC)
Hollywood? Can't say I was going off Hollywood, more like final year molecular biology, where I actually did those transforms (sans botox, I think we put HRP in there to get a colour from an indicator) and transfections. Sure it's not straightforward but it is relatively easy. IMHO synthesising methylamphetamine would be harder benchwork. I think we also linked the plasmid so it would be induced and selected for by galactose rather than an antibiotic.

Memory lane...10 years ago now....I can imagine things haven't got anything but easier.

I must admit I didn't realise that "botox" required a Chaperonin to help it fold. Those *are* big and nasty and I wouldn't want to be trying to mess with those bastards. So I'd select a different toxin that didn't require help. (Hehehehe how about a prion? Hehehehe!)

Plasmid design is not really that difficult for someone with a little training and an understanding of restriction sites etc and some free software off the web.

Sure the old addage applies; wild-type is more robust. And you've got to supply some selection pressure. If we sat and *really* thought about it we could probably make a strain that *would* out-compete wild-type in a particular environment that was more important for bio-warfare than for survival of wild-type. We'd just have to think, research and experiment...now what do we get paid to do again?

Heck, lets stick with virus shall we? That's sounding easier...

:)
arcanumveritas
Jun. 2nd, 2005 02:08 am (UTC)
what's the chance the white powder is blood and bone ... ?

filtered or some such ... add something to so it would show up as biological ?
or would it do that by default ... I don't know what sort of tests they would be doing ...

hell flour is "biological" ... who knows ...

I guessing hoax ...
designadrug
Jun. 2nd, 2005 02:12 am (UTC)
Also...you might wish to clear-up something here; you may be giving some people the impression that washing your hands after visiting the lavoratory doesn't benefit public health.
miss_rynn
Jun. 2nd, 2005 05:41 am (UTC)
Sure, it has some public health benefit... but not as much as people seem to think.
designadrug
Jun. 2nd, 2005 06:15 am (UTC)
I'll give you that one...washing hands *before* doing things is where the major benefits are found. Although consider this. You are in a communal toilet system, washing your hands. Someone comes out of a toilet cubicle after flushing, walks straight to the door, *grabs the handle* and opens the door, then exits. Knowing where their hand has probably just been, how do you feel about having to grab that handle yourself?

Its a numbers game. There's a chance of something infecting you. The less spores/cells there are present, the less the cumulative probability it'll happen. By reducing the starting count from millions to hundreds (or whatever), you reduce your overall exposure to that agent, while it's busy trying to make-up the headstart you just denied it.

Back to that door handle - whatever pathogens that person was cultivating in their gastrointestinal tract, your risk of exposure would have been less had they washed their hands. It's not about protecting you from you, its about everyone else protecting you from them.

(Not to mention you are likely immune to your own flora, having been exposed to it so often.)

Sorry if that sounded preachy.
miss_rynn
Jun. 2nd, 2005 11:39 pm (UTC)
See, this highlights the difference between chemistry-oriented scientists and biology-oriented scientists. :)

Almost every single microbiologist I know probably seems to other people pretty lax when it comes to cleanliness and hygine in some way or other... and yet tend to get ill less often and/or pass on infections less often. They know exactly what they need to be careful of, what they can get away with, and what won't help one bit. Because they understand the sheer magnitude of the forces their battling with, and don't try to control it, but rather work around it.

Because, you know, there is no 100% fully reproducible biological system. When you start dealing with biology, you're dealing with chance and probability rather than x + y = z.

Chemistry, on the other hand (much like physics, in many ways) is an almost fully controlable science. You can directly manipulate what is going on, influence it, and make it do your bidding. And if anything doesn't work properly, you can pin-point exactly why - not just shrug your shoulders like us lazy microbiologists and say, "Meh, it's probably just because it's Tuesday".

Chemists (and people like chemists) are more likely than biologists to be the crazy germ-freaks. No offence intended, by the way. :) I have a feeling it's not because they don't understand what they are dealing with (ie, bacteria) but more the fact that they can't control it as well as they'd like to.

The chemist will always be worried about the person who touched the door handle without washing their hands - the microbiologist will assume it has happened and deal with the consequences. Because you can't control the population (and thus the environment in general) - you can only control yourself.

Besides, I (like most microbiologists) am of the opinion that exposing your immune system to low doses of pathogenic microbes is a good thing in the long run. Keeps those antibodies a-circling. :)
designadrug
Jun. 3rd, 2005 12:57 am (UTC)
Heh. Fooled you. I'm not a straight chemist. I'm a Chemist/Biochemist, double major. I used to teach Microbiology to Environmental Health Inspectors :)

But we kind of agree that it's not predictable, and that it's a numbers game. I agree that you can't *positively* control exposure to pathogens, but you can *negatively* control exposure by reducing the particle count. And the less particles (bacterial/viral/whatever) that you come in contact with the less *chance* you'll get an infection or get sick. It's the difference between someone turning their head when they sneeze versus doing it into your face. In both cases you'll undoubtedly inhale aerosol containing mucosal flora, but in one case there is far less chance you'll get sick because of reduced exposure.

I'm on the fence about the "exposure" to pathogens bit. Sounds fun until someone dies. I'd let my baby eat pretty much any non-faecal matter they found on floor, so there I'm in agreement. A mature immune system in an adult? Not quite as robust as a youngsters...I'd tend to be more careful.

We used to do some great experiments with the first years. Touch their hand to an agar plate. Get them to go wash it. Touch another agar plate. Incubate. Watch their faces the next week when their results show more bacteria on the *washed* hand. Thinking about that experiment made me do some more experiments of my own and changed my hand-washing habits.

We'd also get them to drop open plates in public areas for 15 minutes to catch airbornes. It was during one of these sessions I took a sterile swab and sterile water and swabbed down the inside door handle of the mens loo. I then just used the swab to plate out. That was scary and funny at the same time.

The final years had a great prac - get foodstuffs from around the university, process them in a "stomacher", then culture the supernatent and do taxonomy on what grew. You could *guarantee* E.Coli in the cream buns, Lysteria in pre-packed fish-fingers and Salmonella Typhimurium(sp?) in any salami you'd care to buy. One year we even got some Klebsiella and Clostridium.

I'm rambling. Sorry.
harkon
Jun. 2nd, 2005 10:06 am (UTC)
FOr the sake of others, I lick my hands hands clean after I go ^_^
designadrug
Jun. 2nd, 2005 11:02 pm (UTC)
Oh that's gross. Don't get started on some stuff I *have* seen.
qamar
Jun. 2nd, 2005 03:25 am (UTC)
Wow
Australia is host to one of the most unpleasant non-heamorrhagic visuses I have ever heard of from a readily easily-accessable source

Which is?
miss_rynn
Jun. 2nd, 2005 05:38 am (UTC)
Re: Wow
Equine morbilli virus. Killed a whole bunch of horses and horse handlers up in Queensland in the 90s. Almost identicle to rabies in shape, DNA sequence, how it works and all the rest of it, but different enough that anti-rabies medication doesn't do a damned thing. Something like 95% mortality.

And do you know where they isolated the source of the virus as?

A dead brush-tailed possum.

Whis is why, boys and girls, you should never EVER touch a dead brush-tail with un-gloved hands.
designadrug
Jun. 2nd, 2005 06:33 am (UTC)
I had the pleasure, about 12 months after Vic Rail (the horse trainer) died, of talking to a gent from AAHL who was working on it. It wasn't as well characterised back then of course :P
( 32 comments — Leave a comment )