INTELLIGENCE: Information that protects soldiers
Readers of this document should now understand several importantpoints about protecting soldiers and targets of terrorist attackfrom toxin weapons:
1) Fifteen to twenty of some 400 known toxins have the physicalcharacteristics that make them threats against U.S. forces aspotential MCBWs. However, many toxins could be used in weaponsto produce militarily significant/terrorist (psychological) effects-especiallyin poorly educated troops or in uninformed civilian populations. 2) Effective individual physical protective gear is available;soldiers must receive timely warning of an attack, however, ifthey are to use their protective masks effectively. 3) Most of the toxins with the characteristics that make themthreats as MCBW are proteins, which is to our advantage; vaccinesor passive antibody therapy are developed relatively easily. 4) Immunizing troops, much preferred to treating intoxicated troopsafter exposure, typically requires a minimum of 4-15 weeks. 5) Development of medical countermeasures against likely MCBWsis feasible.
In addition, research for and development of a vaccine or passiveantibody therapy through final approval by the U.S. Food and DrugAdministration as a product for human use is likely to requirea minimum of 4-7 years (8-10 years in some cases). Because developingand producing countermeasures takes years, intelligence informationregarding toxin research for weapons development and aggressorcapability analysis is invaluable. Our own understanding of thephysical characteristics of toxins, even without intelligenceinformation, allows us to deduce what may be possible for theaggressor; this information reduces the list of toxins from hundredsto less than 20. Good intelligence on threat research and developmentcan, at a minimum, help those responsible for research and developmentof medical countermeasures prioritize finite resources, and thusreduce the time of the research and development cycle. Good intelligenceon weaponized toxins held by an aggressor will also greatly assistleaders who must make decisions to immunize troops as they preparefor conflict. Therefore, as regards medical defense against toxinweapons, a strong and effective intelligence effort is both necessaryand cost-effective.
TOXINS AS WEAPONS
Research literature suggests that we have discovered the majorityof the "most toxic" (LD50 < 0.0025 micrograms/kilogram)naturally occurring toxins. New toxins of lesser toxicity, especiallythe venom toxins, are being discovered at the rate of perhaps10-30 per year. There is little precedence in the literature forartificially increasing the toxicities of naturally occurringtoxins; however, it might be possible to increase the physicalstability of toxins that are toxic enough but too unstable toweaponize. This could increase the effectiveness of the threattoxins.
It is unlikely that chemical synthesis of complex nonprotein toxinswill become significantly easier in the near future. It is likely,however, that large-scale biosynthesis of peptide toxins of 10-15amino acids (some of the venom toxins) will become possible inthe next few years.
I have attempted to present a rationale for focusing our medicalbiological defense resources on the development of medical countermeasuresfor those toxins that our soldiers are most likely to face onthe battlefield in the next 5 years. We must also continue limitedbasic research efforts and maintain "technical watch"of the peptide and other toxins that could become the next generationof toxin weapons. Medical defense against biological weapons requiresconstant vigilance, especially today, because biotechnology isnow available worldwide.
COUNTERMEASURES TO TOXINS
Although the threat of toxin weapons of the future is formidable,the prospect of new and better medical countermeasures is brighterthan ever before. Biotechnology may have more value to those ofus developing countermeasures than to those who would use toxinsmaliciously. Molecular biological techniques developed in thelast few years now allow us to produce more effective and lessexpensive vaccines against the protein and peptide toxins. Suchvaccines will likely be available for the most important toxinswithin the next few years. We are making good progress on developingrecombinant vaccines for certain highthreat toxins. Similar technologyallows us to produce human antibodies, which will eventually replacethose now produced in animals. Human antibodies will be a significantadvance over despeciated horse antibodies, allowing us to protectunvaccinated soldiers by simply giving them an injection beforethey go into battle, thereby providing immediate protection. Humanantibodies could also find application in counterterrorism astherapy.
Protecting soldiers on the battlefield from toxins-and replicatingagents-is possible if we use our combined resources effectively.Physical countermeasures such as the protective mask, clothingand decontamination capabilities exist and are effective; as weimprove our battlefield detection systems, early warning of oursoldiers may become a reality, at least in subpopulations withinour forces. These assets, unlike most medical countermeasures,are generally generic and protect against most or all of the agents.Among the medical countermeasures, vaccines are available andeffective for some of the most important agents and therapiesexist for others. Because of limited resources available to developvaccines, diagnostics and therapies, we can field specific medicalcountermeasures only to a relatively small group of threat agents.Our efforts in this area must be carefully focused. A third andcomplementary element of our defensive program must be good intelligence.Only through knowledge of specific threat agents, delivery systems,and national capabilities can we assure effective developmentand use of our physical and medical countermeasures.
Finally, our renewed understanding of the real strengths and weaknessesof toxins as weapons allows us to put them in perspective in educatingour soldiers, removing much of the mystique-and associated fear-surroundingtoxins. Knowledge of the threat thus reduces the threat to oursoldiers.
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