MOSCOW, November 2 (RIA Novosti) — The fact that Ebola is one of the most virulent diseases with a death rate as high as 90 percent has prompted some experts and analysts to debate whether the virus can be used as a biological weapon.
“Such possibility exists,” said Vladimir Nikiforov, who heads the Department of Infectious Diseases at the FMBA’s Institution of Advanced Training, at a press conference at news agency Rossiya Segodnya.
However, there are reasons to believe that the danger of the virus being used in biological warfare is exaggerated. First and foremost, Ebola is not an airborne infection. Hitherto, there have been no documented cases to prove otherwise. But the virus can evolve. Anthony Branbury, a Senior United Nations System Coordinator for Ebola, recently told the Telegraph that the longer the virus “moves around in human hosts in the virulent melting pot that is West Africa, the more chances increase that it could mutate.” He stressed that such a scenario is unlikely, “but it can’t be ruled out.”
Ebola has a very low reproductive rate. An Ebola carrier can, on average, infect one or two people. To put this into perspective, measles, an airborne virus, has a reproductive rate of 12 to 18. Smallpox, another deadly airborne virus, has a reproductive rate of 5 to 7. Even HIV has a higher reproductive rate than Ebola. A person, who has contracted HIV, usually infects up to five people.
Ebola is transmitted by direct contact with bodily fluids, including blood, saliva, mucus, vomit, urine, or feces, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The only way to infect people with Ebola, when aiming to use it as a biological weapon, is to spray them with a fluid containing the virus. Vladimir Nikiforov confirmed that: “Actually, this virus can be used in the form of a spray, which can lead to very big trouble.”
Marc A. Thiessen outlines another possible scenario in an opinion piece in the Washington Post: “Ebola has up to a 21-day incubation period — more than enough time for terrorists to infect themselves and then come [to the US] with the virus. In a nightmare scenario, suicide bombers infected with Ebola could blow themselves up in a crowded place — say, shopping malls in Oklahoma City, Philadelphia and Atlanta — spreading infected tissue and bodily fluids.”
However, transporting an infected person to the United States undetected is a challenge in itself, Scott Stewart argues in an article published in Forbes. Moreover, such a person would not be able to travel or reach a crowded area to carry out an attack unassisted, Stratfor’s vice president of tactical analysis stressed. He contended that “the heat and shock of the suicide device’s explosion would likely kill most of the virus.”
Yet another factor, which should be considered, is that Ebola is a fragile virus. It cannot survive outside the host for more than several hours. The virus can also be killed by common disinfectants.
There had been attempts to weaponize Ebola in the mid-1990s. Aum Shinrikyo, a radical Japanese group, which carried out a Sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway, sent experts to Zaire during another Ebola outbreak in 1993, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. They planned to obtain samples of the deadly virus, take it to Japan and produce it in volumes large enough for an attack, but failed.
Some speculate that the Islamic State may attempt to use Ebola as a biological weapon. The radical Sunni group has threatened several countries, including Russia and the United States, with retribution. “You will not feel secure even in your bedrooms… We will strike you in your homeland, and you will never be able to harm anyone afterwards,” Abu Mohammed al-Adnani said in an audio message, as quoted by the Washington Post. The Islamic State has reportedly considered obtaining chemical and biological agents to diversify its arsenal of weapons.
For a group like IS, biological weapons might seem to be a natural choice due to low production costs and high mortality levels. Indeed, in late August, Foreign Policy magazine confirmed that the Islamic State has researched how to weaponize bubonic plague.
“The real difficulty in all of these weapons… [is] to actually have a workable distribution system that will kill a lot of people,” pointed out Magnus Ranstorp, research director of the Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defence College, as quoted by Foreign Policy. “But to produce quite scary weapons is certainly within [the Islamic State's] capabilities,” he stressed.
Plague has been used as a weapon, according to numerous historical accounts. The Huns as well the Turks and Mongols hurled plague-infected corpses into water sources to contaminate water supplies. In 1346, the Mongol army is said to have dropped bodies infected with plague into the besieged city of Caffa, a seaport on the Crimean Peninsula, according to an article, published on the CDC website.
During World War II, Unit 731 of the Japanese Imperial Army conducted research into biological weapons, including plague. Bombs carrying plague-infested fleas were tested in China so as to determine whether they could start an outbreak of the disease. The experiments proved successful, according to an article in the New York Times. Sheldon H. Harris, author of the book “Factories of Death: Japanese Biological Warfare, 1932-45, and the American Cover-up”, estimated that over 30,000 people were killed in the Harbin area, in China, from 1946 to 1948 due to plague-infected animals, released by Unit 731.
“Biological weapons look great in the movies, but they are difficult and expensive to develop in real life,” Scott Stewart maintained, as quoted by Forbes. At least for now, terrorists seem to prefer traditional ways of wreaking havoc and intimidating masses. The Islamic State is notorious for using brutal tactics and the shock and awe approach, carrying out beheadings, kidnappings, enslavement, extortion, etc.