[Note: An apology is in order for the last blog. In it we covered, among other things, the Congressional Seminar on the Ebola Outbreak in West Africa, held on September 24[1] and attributed certain remarks about terrorism and biological warfare to DoD’s Assistant Secretary for Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Defense Programs. Actually, the specific remarks were his, but he didn’t make them at the event we discussed. Instead, as reported by DoD’s Defense Media Activity, he made them elsewhere, but at around the same time.[2]]

What a difference a month can make! Remember way back on August 28, when the World Health Organization told us West Africa might have as many as 20,000 Ebola cases in 6 months.[3] People here were shocked that the number was so high, but relieved more or less that the epidemic wouldn’t directly affect us. The Centers for Disease Control said that “no confirmed cases” had been reported in the U.S,[4] and the general view was that, if one occurred, our sophisticated and knowledgeable public health system would swiftly prevent it from becoming an outbreak.[5]

Here it is, October 3, and now our CDC is projecting a “worst case” scenario for West Africa of up to 1.4 million Ebola cases by the end of January, 2015. That’s in less than 4 months! Quite a rise, isn’t it? And, of course, we have the first confirmed case of Ebola here at home. [More may be on the way.[6]] The source is a traveler from Liberia.[7] So now we know one thing for sure, and may find out another.

The thing we know is that airport screening doesn’t catch every person infected with Ebola. The screener asks a traveler a bunch of questions, then takes that person’s temperature. As long as the traveler isn’t sick, he [or she] gets to enplane. The same thing happens at destination. Pass the oral test, pass the physical, leave the airport, and attend to business.

The problem is that the Ebola virus can incubate for a while before it manifests. A passenger may carry the virus but not yet be sick from it. The passenger will be infectious – very infectious – only when the sickness comes.  So how do we catch the carriers? Do we test everybody from infected areas before they’re allowed in this country? If this isn’t possible, do we simply bar them from entering? Or do we just stick with our current procedures, on the theory that they’ve only failed us once that we know about? Who knows? We at Elemental Zoo Two suspect the answer will be political, not medical. It may depend on how many of what lobbying groups show up at meetings.

And what’s the thing that we may find out? Well, if this one case turns into an outbreak, and others show up and do the same, we may find that U.S. medical experts aren’t really as smart as we thought they were.

Let’s move on for a moment to bioterrorism. Last week DoD pointed out that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has put out a call for “brothers with degrees in chemistry and microbiology to develop weapons of mass destruction.”[8] Terrorist groups have tried, and failed, to obtain anthrax cultures; no doubt they’re still interested. But, of course, terrorists don’t have to limit themselves to anthrax. Wikipedia lists lots of other potential weapons, including Rift Valley fever, Ebola, Japanese encephalitis, Marburg and Yellow fever, all viruses.[9]

DoD is concerned that laboratories dealing in these kinds of things are poorly guarded and controlled, and might be attacked or burglarized by terrorists. Collections of pathogens should be consolidated into fewer and better protected facilities. DoD has a five year plan for that, and hopes to have it, or something like it, adopted internationally.[10]

We agreed with that last week, and still think it’s a good idea. However, it’s basically irrelevant to the crisis at hand. The Ebola raging in West Africa is not bound to a laboratory. Instead, it’s free for the asking to any terrorist who is brave – or foolish – enough to collect blood specimens, vomit, sweat, spit, urine, infected garments, or other medical waste from Ebola victims[11]. If a terrorist survives the collection effort, he [or she] only has to find a way to move all that stuff to a target country.

Wouldn’t that be hard? Don’t countries seal their borders to keep bad things out? Sometimes they try but, unfortunately for the rest of us, there are networks and organizations that specialize in moving contraband around the world.

Consider heroin. The UN estimates that the world consumes about 340 tons of the stuff each year.[12] Counting seizures and other losses, that represents an annual heroin flow of from 430 – 450 tons in the global heroin market. [Most of that – 380 tons – seems to come from Afghanistan, by the way.][13] Worldwide, at least 70%[14] of the available product gets through to the ultimate consumer. What does that tell you? Well, it tells me that where there’s a big payoff, clever people will find a way to profit no matter what laws or nations might say otherwise. That’s pretty much true of the heroin trade, worldwide and in this country.[15]

Where one such network exists, probably others develop to handle different criminal activities; networks to carry other drugs, to tear down and sell stolen cars, to traffic in humans, to launder money, and so forth. Such things are well known in sociology and to law enforcement.[16] So, a small but well-funded terrorist organization might not need to develop its own network to ship toxic contraband to the U.S. It might, instead, try to enlist the existing criminal infrastructure to do the same thing.

Or, translated into English, a smart terrorist might hire an established smuggler to carry a terror cargo. If the money’s right, no doubt there would be plenty of volunteers. Sounds like the plot for a thriller novel, doesn’t it? Something that Clive Cussler might dream up? The difference is, thriller novels usually have happy endings, where the bad guys are hurt and the good triumph; reality may not be so kind to the innocent.




[1] This is a CSPAN video, available at http://www.c-span.org/video/?321685-1/congressional-seminar-ebola-outbreak-west-africa

[2] See DoD News, Pellerin, Obama Urges Countries, Organizations to Do More to Fight Ebola (September 25, 2014), available at http://www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=123265 The article is most noteworthy because it also discusses potential bioterrorism.

[3] See World Health Organization, Ebola Response Roadmap (28 August 2014) (hereafter cited as WHO Roadmap at __), available at  http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/131596/1/EbolaResponseRoadmap.pdf?ua=1

[4] See CDC, 2014 Ebola Outbreak in West Africa and go to the September 6 Update, available at http://www.cdc.gov/vhf/ebola/outbreaks/2014-west-africa/index.html

[5] See CNN, Brumfield, Could the Ebola outbreak come to the United States? (July 31, 2014) at http://www.cnn.com/2014/07/31/health/ebola-outbreak-us-worry/index.html

[6] See, e.g., msn news, Ferris, Reports: Howard University treating possible Ebola patient (October 3, 2014), available at http://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/reports-howard-university-treating-possible-ebola-patient/ar-BB7gtar

[7] See CNN Health, Botelho, U.S. Ebola patient: The travels and health travails of Thomas Eric Duncan (October 2, 2014), available at http://www.cnn.com/2014/10/01/health/us-ebola-patient/index.html?iid=article_sidebar See also The New York Times, Onishi, U.S. Patient Aided Pregnant Liberian, Then Took Ill (October 1, 2014) available at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/02/world/africa/ebola-victim-texas-thomas-eric-duncan.html?_r=0

[8] Actually, I’m quoting here from the article referenced in n. 2.

[9] That’s only a small part of the list. For the whole thing, go to Wikipedia at Biological Warfare, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biological_warfare

[10] See n. 2.

[11] If you want to know what materials are infectious, just look at CDC’s guidance to hospitals on what employees should not touch. See CDC, Interim Guidance for Environmental Infection Control in Hospitals for Ebola Virus (updated October 3, 2014), available at  http://www.cdc.gov/vhf/ebola/hcp/environmental-infection-control-in-hospitals.html  Blood would appear to be the most toxic substance.

[12] See U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, Drug trafficking, at Introduction, available at http://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/drug-trafficking/index.html

[13] Id. “While approximately 5 tons are consumed and seized in Afghanistan, the remaining bulk of 375 tons is trafficked worldwide via routes flowing into and through the countries neighbouring Afghanistan.”

[14] Actually, we come up with 340/450, or 75.55%. See also U.S. DOJ, Drug Enforcement Administration, Drugs of Abuse (September 2011 edition) at Heroin, p. 36, available at http://www.justice.gov/dea/pr/multimedia-library/publications/drug_of_abuse.pdf#page=36  “Heroin is processed from morphine, a naturally occurring substance extracted from the seed pod of certain varieties of poppy plants grown in: … Southeast Asia (Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar (Burma)), Southwest Asia (Afghanistan and Pakistan), Mexico, and Colombia.”

[15] See, e.g., The Rancher, From our community, Long-time Nigerian fugitive ordered to prison for importing heroin into the U.S. (September 30, 2014), available at http://www.yourhoustonnews.com/ranch/news/long-time-nigerian-fugitive-ordered-to-prison-for-importing-heroin/article_acf18d3f-b013-5ef9-8108-983a55f455f8.html  For a Rogue’s Gallery of the big guys involved in drugs today, check out the DEA website at Wanted Fugitives, available at http://www.justice.gov/dea/fugitives.shtml  There seems to be a lot of them.

[16] See, e.g., FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, Johnson, Reitzel, Norwood, McCoy, Cummings &Tate, Social Network Analysis: A Systematic Approach for Investigating (2013), available at http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/law-enforcement-bulletin/2013/March/social-network-analysis : “The influence of social networks in producing criminal behavior indicates that effective crime-fighting strategies are contingent upon law enforcement’s ability to identify and respond appropriately to the networks where the behavior is embedded.”