The escalating fear that terrorists will turn next to biological weapons is focusing attention on an isolated island that harbors enough anthrax to wipe out the world's population.
Buried on Vozrozhdeniye Island, a former Soviet biological weapons test site, is tons of powdered anthrax, the deadliest bacteria on Earth. There are also lesser quantities of plague, typhus, smallpox and a host of other disease-causing organisms at the site.
The island is abandoned and unguarded.
Contaminants were enclosed in stainless-steel drums that were soaked in bleach and buried in sand two meters deep, but tests conducted in recent years showed that some of the anthrax spores are still alive.
The bacteria were manufactured as part of the Soviet biological weapons program, but dumped at the site in 1988. The United States made similar toxins until 1972, but destroyed its biological weapons.
The anthrax dump is one of the most troubling legacies of the Cold War, but the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have transformed the environmental-disaster-in-progress into a grave security threat.
Some bioterrorism experts feel that only a shovel and a little guile are required to gain access to huge quantities of deadly organisms.
But other scientists are skeptical, saying that digging up the anthrax, determining which spores are virulent, transporting them and disseminating them anew would be an extremely complex undertaking.
Vozrozhdeniye Island is located in the middle of the Aral Sea, about 1,300 kilometers east of Moscow. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the island has been shared by Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, neither of which can afford to police the dump, nor pay for its cleanup.
Because of irrigation projects, the Aral Sea is drying up, and Vozrozhdeniye Island may soon be connected to the mainland, making the toxic site more accessible.
Anthrax is an infectious disease caused by the bacterium Bacillus anthracis. It is commonly found in wild and domestic herbivores such as cattle, sheep, goats, camels and antelopes, but can occur in humans when they are exposed to infected animals or tissue.
Anthrax is one of the most feared bioterrorist weapons because it is extremely deadly, easy to spread (particularly in aerosolized form) and hard to kill. It is also odorless and invisible.
The anthrax buried on Vozrozhdeniye Island is a pink powder that was designed specifically to infect humans. It is like a freeze-dried form of bacteria that is resistant to disinfectants, drought, heat and freezing. The powder was designed to be packed into a missile, or dropped from a plane like a bomb.
Anthrax spores, when they get into a person's lungs, proliferate quickly, creating thick froth that suffocates the victim. The disease can be treated with antibiotics if caught early, and is rarely spread from human to human.
Projections prepared by Health Canada underscore just how calamitous a bioterrorist attack with anthrax could be.
Using computer models, scientists at the Population and Public Health Branch calculated that releasing anthrax bacteria into the air of a city of 100,000 could result in 50,000 cases of anthrax, cause 32,875 deaths and cost $6.5-billion to contain.
But the risk may be more theoretical than real. In 1995, leaders of the apocalyptic Japanese cult Aum Shinri Kyo tried nine times to unleash an anthrax attack in the Tokyo subway, but failed. They finally released the nerve gas sarin, killing 12 people.
Meanwhile, a 63-year-old Florida man has been hospitalized with pulmonary anthrax, but officials say there is no indication the illness is related to bioterrorism.
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