Australia fights bioterrorism risk

Australia's defence against biological weapons have been boosted by the opening of a centre for Biosecurity.

Christian Enemark, the co-director of the national Centre for Biosecurity, at his office in Sydney beside an image of the influenza virus.
Powered by automated translation

SYDNEY // Australia's defences against infectious diseases and biological weapons have been boosted by the opening of a National Centre for Biosecurity, which experts believe will help protect the country from such threats as Sars and bird flu, as well as attacks by militants or rogue scientists.

The centre will look at ways to combat biological warfare, naturally occurring diseases and the theft or misuse of sensitive research on micro-organisms along with the dangers posed by synthetic biology, in which a living virus or bacteria can be created from scratch. Much of the facility's work will concentrate on 22 germs and poisons, which are considered by the Australian government to be "agents of concern", including anthrax, plague, smallpox and botulinum toxin.

Christian Enemark, the co-director of the new biosecurity project, says researchers will be on the front line of efforts to counter biological terrorism. "It's quite an eerie feeling … Most of the concerns surrounding weapons of mass destruction have been very much nuclear weapons-orientated, but more and more we're seeing the idea of biology losing its innocence." In 2001, the deadly anthrax bacteria was sent through the US postal service in contaminated envelopes. Five people were killed and the Federal Bureau of Investigation said it was convinced the attack was carried out by a US army microbiologist, who committed suicide this summer before he could be charged.

Australia's new biosecurity centre is a joint venture between the Australian National University in Canberra and the University of Sydney. It will employ 50 academics, who will provide "independent and fearless advice" to politicians. The Australian government has stated that the risk of a "weaponised pathogen" such as anthrax being used on home soil was low, but Peter Curson, a professor of population and security at the University of Sydney, insists there is no room for complacency.

"I've always been interested in the potential of people being used as vectors of disease," he said. "It's not a great extension of reality to suggest that could actually be used in a concentrated, deliberate way." Prof Curson points to evidence from the Amazon region of South America, where claims have been made that groups representing unscrupulous forestry or farming companies have bribed people with respiratory infections to mix with native tribes in an attempt to spread disease and weaken the natives' resolve against encroachment by developers.

Australia has suffered serious outbreaks of infectious diseases in the past. In 1925, 600,000 cases were reported of dengue fever, which is caused by a virus carried by mosquitoes. "You could easily see an event like that paralysing the economic and social structure of a country like Australia," Prof Curson said. Australia has never suffered a terrorist attack, biological or otherwise. But the bombings on the Indonesian island of Bali in 2002, which killed 202 people, including 88 Australians, brought this isolated continent to the front line of international terrorism, and its people were gripped by a sense of fear and vulnerability.

Clive Williams, a former officer in the Australian Intelligence Corps, said he believed those feelings of anxiety had faded since last November's federal elections. "I think the public perception is that the [former] Howard government tended to exaggerate the threat of terrorism in Australia and also had been much more vocal in its support of the United States and had been involved in the coalition in Iraq.

"One of the things the new Rudd government did was to announce a withdrawal of its combat elements from Iraq. People relaxed a bit after that, because their perception was that we wouldn't be a likely target for extremists here." Mr Williams said such complacency was misplaced. "The threat of terrorism is more likely to come from disaffected internal elements than it is from somebody coming in from outside these days. One of the problem areas is the fixated individual, who might not be an Islamist or be politically motivated. Those people acting alone are very difficult to pick up."

Biosecurity specialists say embittered scientists could pose a threat, along with radical groups, and that Australia must remain vigilant. "It is still very difficult to assess the likelihood of a biological attack," Mr Enemark said. "But it's important to bear in mind that such an attack would be invisible and insidious, and there are some who would argue that a terrorist attack has much more impact if it is physical and extremely visible."