In contrast to other types of terrorist attack, which require resources that are difficult to scale and replenish, the technical knowledge required to launch a catastrophic biological attack can be deployed repeatedly once it is mastered. This potential to “reload” creates the potential for successive high-impact attacks. According to one expert, this means that the national security vulnerabilities revealed by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 in the United States were smaller than those revealed by the series of “anthrax letters” that killed five people in the weeks that followed. (1) In June 2018, German police intercepted a potential biological attack when an arrest led to the discovery of 84 milligrams of the poison ricin. (2)
Responses that would work against a natural pandemic might not be as effective against a deliberate attack, given such an attack’s military and political dimensions and the lack of reliable governing frameworks. (3) For example, states might be reticent about sending resources and personnel to assist other countries if they perceive a risk of being affected themselves by any subsequent attacks.
The potential impact of a deliberate attack was highlighted last year by a pandemic preparedness exercise in the United States. This involved a war-gaming scenario in which a terrorist group released a virus that had been modified to combine a high case fatality rate with ease of transmission. (4) The results? A failed vaccine, tens of millions of deaths, incapacitated governments, overwhelmed healthcare systems and stock markets down by 90 percent. (5) This may have been a hypothetical scenario, but it is not in the realm of science fiction.
This article is excerpted from the 14th edition of The Global Risks Report, prepared by the World Economic Forum (WEF) with the support of Marsh & McLennan Companies and other partners.
(1) Danzig, R. 2003. “Catastrophic Bioterrorism-What Is To Be Done?” Center for Technology and National Security Policy. August 2003. http://www.response-analyticsorg/images/Danzig_Bioterror_Paper. pdf, p. 1.
(2) Jokinen, C. 2018. “Foiled Ricin Plot Raises Specter of ‘More Sophisticated’ IS-inspired Attacks”. The Jamestown Foundation. 10 August 2018. https://jamestown. org/program/foiled-ricin-plot-raises-specterof-more-sophisticated-is-inspired-attacks/
(3) Katz, R., E. Graeden, K. Abe, A. Attal-Juncqua, M. Boyce, and S. Eaneff. 2018. “Mapping Stakeholders and Policies in Response to Deliberate Biological Events”. Preprints 2018, 2018070607. doi:10.20944/preprints201807.0607.v1
(4) Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. 2018. “Clade X Pathogen Engineering Assumptions”. http://www.centerforhealthsecurity.org/our-work/events/2018_clade_x_exercise/pdfs/Clade-X-pathogen-engineering-assumptions.pdf
(5) Regalado, A. 2018. “It’s Fiction, but America Just Got Wiped Out by a Man-made Terror Germ”. MIT Technology Review. 30 May 2018. https://www.technologyreview.com/s/611182/its-fiction-but-america-justgot-wiped-out-by-a-man-made-terror-germ/