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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.


( 32 comments — Leave a comment )
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.
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.
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 :)
(no subject) - designadrug - Jun. 2nd, 2005 03:09 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - delwyn - Jun. 2nd, 2005 07:39 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - designadrug - Jun. 2nd, 2005 11:01 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - delwyn - Jun. 2nd, 2005 11:16 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - designadrug - Jun. 2nd, 2005 11:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - delwyn - Jun. 3rd, 2005 01:52 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - designadrug - Jun. 3rd, 2005 01:54 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - delwyn - Jun. 3rd, 2005 02:03 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - designadrug - Jun. 3rd, 2005 02:19 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mareth_redorb - Jun. 2nd, 2005 06:07 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - designadrug - Jun. 2nd, 2005 06:36 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mareth_redorb - Jun. 2nd, 2005 10:09 pm (UTC) - Expand
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?
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).


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...
(no subject) - miss_rynn - Jun. 2nd, 2005 11:42 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - designadrug - Jun. 3rd, 2005 01:10 am (UTC) - Expand
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. :)
(no subject) - designadrug - Jun. 3rd, 2005 12:21 am (UTC) - Expand
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 ...
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.
Jun. 2nd, 2005 05:41 am (UTC)
Sure, it has some public health benefit... but not as much as people seem to think.
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.
(no subject) - miss_rynn - Jun. 2nd, 2005 11:39 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - designadrug - Jun. 3rd, 2005 12:57 am (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 2nd, 2005 10:06 am (UTC)
FOr the sake of others, I lick my hands hands clean after I go ^_^
Jun. 2nd, 2005 11:02 pm (UTC)
Oh that's gross. Don't get started on some stuff I *have* seen.
Jun. 2nd, 2005 03:25 am (UTC)
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?
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.
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 )