Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Ebola outbreak could inspire African terrorist groups to weaponize the virus: Experts | Homeland Security News Wire

Recent discussions about Ebola have mainly focused on the disease as a public health hazard, but counterterrorism officials are concerned that the new outbreak could inspire terror groups, specifically those based in West Africa, to weaponize the virus. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) has been working with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and biotech firm Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc. to develop a treatment for Ebola. The “secret serum” was recently used to treat two American health workers who are infected with the virus (see “Disagreement over use of experimental drugs in desperate effort to contain Ebola outbreak,” HSNW, 11 July 2014).

As far back as 2010, the Defense Department (DOD) has been researching treatments for Ebola. Most notably, the U.S. Army’s Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases and DOD’s Joint Project Manager Transformational Medical Technologies Office signed a $140 million contract with Tekmira to develop a treatment for the virus. The collaboration was extended in 2013, and when the first cases of Ebola reemerged in March 2014, Tekmira was granted a Fast Track designation from the Food and Drug Administration for the development of TKM-Ebola, an anti-Ebola viral therapeutic.

“That the U.S. government takes the potential of Ebola as a bio-terror agent seriously is clear from the fact that it has invested tens of millions of dollars in vaccine and therapy research over the last decade,” says Peter D. Walsh, a professor at Cambridge University. The Washington Post reports that Amy Derrick-Frost, a spokeswoman for DOD, acknowledged that the department maintains research interests for protection against intentional use and natural exposure to Ebola as the virus may pose a danger to its personnel around the world. Pharmaceutical firms have few incentives to develop a treatment for Ebola since the virus is rare and naturally limited to sub-Saharan Africa; therefore research funded by DOD is vital for an Ebola treatment. The fear of weaponized Ebola dates back decades to when the Soviet Union’s VECTOR program, aimed at researching biotechnology and virology, was thought to have researched the creation of Ebola for warfare. The Post reports that in 1992, a Japanese cult group called Aum Shinrikyo tried but failed to collect samples of the Ebola virus in Zaire. “Ebola is among a handful of emerging infectious diseases that have historically been explored as a potential biological weapon, and we (DOD) are closely monitoring these types of infectious diseases,” Amy Derrick-Frost explained.

Though the concern for weaponized Ebola is appropriate, experts doubt that West African terror groups have the scientific skills and ambition to wage such objective, adding that Ebola is not airborne, which limits the number of casualties a terror group could target. A 2013 essay published by Amanda M. Teckman in the Global Policy Journal raised concerns about weaponized Ebola, but Teckman recently noted that the danger is “not probable” because weaponizing Ebola requires the knowledge and tools to store and disperse the virus.

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