Bioterrorism threat: No worries for now

Mohamad-Fuzi-Harun-bioterrorism-`

PETALING JAYA: Police have sought to assure the public that they are in a constant state of alert to threats of bioterrorism.

Special Branch director Mohamad Fuzi Harun said Malaysian authorities were in collaboration with their counterparts in other countries in monitoring the threat.

The issue made the news recently with a warning from Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, he said this new form of terrorism, involving the purposeful spread of diseases, could cause “very, very huge” damage.

Speaking to FMT, Fuzi said police believed that terrorists and their local sympathisers did not currently have the ability to pull off a bioterrorist attack.

Even if they did, he added, “we are prepared for it. We have been collaborating with other countries.”

His confidence was shared by biosecurity expert Zalini Yunos of the Science Technology Research Institute for Defence.

She said the authorities were “well prepared” to deal with any bioterrorist attack. “Our public health and medical preparedness measures are in place, and we have a strong surveillance system for detection of infectious diseases.”

She acknowledged, however, that bioterrorism was no longer mere fiction. She noted that information on how to alter a microorganism’s DNA had become easily available with the rapid development of biotechnology and bioengineering.

“Terrorist groups or lone wolves can potentially use such information to create a new and deadly superbug that is resistant to medical treatment, or to recreate eradicated germs such as smallpox,” she said.

According to Zalini, Malaysian authorities are concerned over bioterrorism because it posed a threat to public health as well as the national economy. “We have a large agriculture industry and biological weapons can be used to attack plant and animal resources.”

She also spoke of “a certain degree of risk” from those who have access to biological agents at their workplace. Such a threat could come from disgruntled employees or those experiencing financial problems. They could provide biological agents to terrorists.

“We have many government and private research institutions, biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies and universities working on life sciences research and with various pathogens which can be obtained by evil doers if biosecurity measures are not in place,” she said.

“Open access to biological research and scientific information and knowledge via the internet is a concern as this information can be readily acquired by terrorist groups or a lone wolf to develop bioweapons.”

However, she added, a complicated process would be involved in transforming a deadly virus or bacterium into a disease that could be easily spread and thereby become an effective weapon.

“In Malaysia the authorities have a database in place of pathogens that research institutions are working on, and the research is monitored closely. This is especially true with research involving genetically modified organisms.”

She said biological weapons were not easily accessible in practice though it would be in theory.

She explained that simple laboratories could be set up by assembling items from everyday household tools and second-hand equipment available online. These facilities can be used to culture existing viruses or bacteria before they are turned into biological weapons.

“In practice, such engineering is not simple to do,” she said. “But it may be in the near future. Terrorist groups with enough resources may have the ability to obtain the required manpower and necessary infrastructure to produce bioweapons.

“Advances in biotechnology have opened the doors to many possibilities of creating designer diseases and novel pathogens.”