Recent events tell us that we could enter a new era with global threats from extremists and rogue administrations in the form of biological weapons. The International Committee Of The Red Cross (ICRC) tell us it’s never been easier to develop and use biological weapons. An attacker could use diseases such as flu or Ebola.
The plague, best known for wiping out more than a third of Europe’s population during the Black Death pandemic of the 14th century, is not entirely a thing of the past. It’s enough of a present-day threat, either as a potential bioterrorism weapon or because some strains are now antibiotic resistant. A team of scientists at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston are trying to develop a plague vaccine and so far at least in two animal models have been tested.
They began their work following the anthrax attacks of 2001, when letters containing anthrax were mailed to media outlets and congressional offices. The bacteria responsible for the plague made the top section of the list being the microbes most likely to be used as for bioterrorism agents. It’s listed alongside anthrax, Ebola, smallpox and foot-and-mouth disease. But this wasn’t the first time the plague was considered a potential bioweapon. Japan may have spread plague-infected fleas in certain parts of China during the Second World War, and the US and the Soviet Union considered spreading the plague bacteria as an aerosol during the Cold War.
Vaccines for the plague exist, but they have some serious flaws. One made with dead bacteria is approved by the US Food and Drug Administration but no longer manufactured. It protected against only the bubonic plague, not the more dangerous pneumonic plague. Another vaccine is used in endemic regions such as China and the former Soviet Union, but it’s not approved by government bodies because of its high likelihood to cause severe side effects such as fever, malaise and headaches. It’s time to take this seriously. Governments need to assess the new risks, enforce the ban on biological weapons and plan the international response.