NBC Weapons: The North Korean Anthrax Threat

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NUCLEAR, BIOLOGICAL AND CHEMICAL WEAPONS

January 1, 2018: A North Korean soldier who recently defected to South Korea was found to have Anthrax anti-bodies in his blood. This came at about the same time as rumors of North Korea planning to equip its long range ballistic missiles with warheads containing Anthrax. The reality is that Anthrax does not make a very effective biological weapon, but it is an easy one to obtain and hardy enough to survive delivery via ballistic missile. Moreover, Anthrax is not contagious but it does occur naturally in many parts of the world and many people acquire immunity by surviving exposure (not uncommon) or receiving a vaccination (less common). North Korea could not afford to vaccinate the entire population against Anthrax, or even all its troops. Only those assigned to guard facilities storing Anthrax filled bombs, shells or warheads, or manufacturing facilities would need the vaccination. If used in a combat zone troops moving into the contaminated area would need vaccination.

What was not reported was any more details of the North Korean soldier with the Anthrax anti-bodies. That was done to prevent North Korea from figuring out what South Korea knew of their biological and radiological weapons programs. It is known that South Korea gives defectors thorough physical exams including world class analysis of blood and tissue samples. Over 30,000 North Korean have managed to reach South Korea, most of them in the last twenty years and all have been thoroughly examined. All South Korea will reveal is that the data has been very useful, not only in treating the defectors for the many infections and maladies they have, but also it getting idea of what, so to speak, is in the air, water and soil up there over time and where.

One bit of information that was recently released involved recent defectors who showed signs of radiation poisoning. Since they came from the area where North Korea tests its nuclear weapons (underground) it indicates that rumors of massive radiation leaks are true. The Chinese certainly believed it and ran TV and print ads warning citizens near the border to get checked if they showed certain symptoms. There were also illustrations on how to clean oneself to avoid accumulating enough exposure to get infected.

Meanwhile there was a North Korea biological weapon scare in 2015 when a PR video of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visiting a recently refurbished North Korean Pyongyang Biotechnical Institute became available. Western analysts noted in the background there were some industrial equipment for making large quantities of new biological agents. North Korea said it was doing some research on biological pesticides for some local crops. But that expensive equipment could make biological weapons like militarized Anthrax. North Korea denies that is the case but it was noted that sanctions never banned pesticides or medicine and North Korea could always have large quantities of some new pesticide made in China much more cheaply than doing it themselves. Then again, a lot of what North Korea does makes no economic sense and they keep doing it anyway. That is likely the case with this Anthrax scare. Then again, there is some danger.

For thousands of years Anthrax was known as a livestock pest, regularly killing animals that grazed on land infested with Anthrax spores. The animals breathed in the spores as they pulled up grass and released the spores from the soil. Humans could get infected as well, usually by getting spores on a cut. This skin (cutaneous) form of Anthrax is fatal in up to 20 percent of the victims, depending on how potent the Anthrax strain was and how many spores got into the sore. People who worked with sheep's wool also got cutaneous Anthrax, as did those working with the hides of animals that grazed in areas containing Anthrax. In the 1970s, imported wool from an Anthrax area, improperly cleaned, infected a number of Americans.

Anthrax has long been pitched as an effective bio-warfare weapon. Britain developed a military form of Anthrax during World War II. At the time it was seen as an effective weapon because the Germans didn't have antibiotics (only the Allies had this then-new medication that cured Anthrax infections). Since then, work has continued on militarized Anthrax, developing more potent strains (so less of it was needed to kill) and making Anthrax resistant to antibiotics (difficult to do, although current genetic engineering techniques make this easier to do if you have the qualified scientists and engineers).

The major problem with Anthrax-as-a-weapon is delivering it. The spores, in their natural form, don't travel well in the air. "Militarizing" Anthrax consists of processing the spores so they don't clump together and thus can more easily float away in a breeze. But sunlight and heat can kill the spores, and even if they float through the air they can disperse so that anyone breathing them in will not get a fatal dose (10,000 to 50,000 spores). All this created the need for militarized Anthrax to be grown from more powerful strains.

Naturally occurring Anthrax (which exists in most parts of the world) varies in its potency. Wealthier nations, like the United States, give animals in Anthrax ridden areas a vaccine that protects them. There have long been vaccines for humans as well, to protect farmers and veterinarians. Agricultural researchers have collected many strains of Anthrax, and the more potent ones are kept and cultured to provide material to test new vaccines.

Even the most potent militarized Anthrax isn't that powerful. We know this from a military Anthrax accident in 1979. A Russian biological warfare plant outside the city of Sverdlosk accidentally released some militarized Anthrax. Thousands of people in the area were infected. But fewer than a hundred died. What was particularly discouraging to Russian military bioweapon scientists was that only one of the dead was of military age and he was already ill from other ailments. All of those that died from the Anthrax were old and usually sick. All the victims had weakened immune systems. Many had lung ailments. The Russians initially denied that there was an accident and did not treat the locals for Anthrax. Later they said the deaths were caused by people eating meat infected with Anthrax (a common way for people to die from Anthrax). It was only after the Soviet Union fell apart that Western researchers were able to get into the area and interview survivors and discover that people with normal immune systems were able to fight off an Anthrax infection.

In mid-2016 there was another outbreak of Anthrax in northern Siberia. This one made at least 40 people sick but so far none have died. What is unusual about this outbreak is that it was apparently caused by dead reindeer from the last outbreak in the area, back in 1968. What’s the connection? Most of the victims in 1968 were reindeer and many froze during an early freeze, before they could decompose. These corpses were buried in ground that is normally frozen year round (permafrost) and only thaws every few decades (or longer) when another incidence of unusually warm weather occurred. In 2016 it was hot enough long enough (35 degrees C/96 Fahrenheit) to defrost some of the reindeer and reactivate the Anthrax. This is a reminder that Anthrax still remains a favorite deliberate, or accidently, biological weapon.

Anthrax outbreaks are not common in Siberia and Central Asia but they do occur every few years. During mid-2012 a rural area of southern Siberia had an Anthrax outbreak in which several people were infected and one of them died. Further south in there was an outbreak 20 kilometers from a Russian airbase in Kyrgyzstan. Anthrax is a bacteria and some people and animals can fight off infections and even develop an immunity. But there are usually some fatalities during a major outbreak and Russian troops in Kyrgyzstan are unlikely to have any natural immunity. Russia leases space at the Kant Airbase in Kyrgyzstan and reported that it had disinfected many areas of the base and vaccinated personnel against Anthrax. Kyrgyzstan public health officials admitted that there had been numerous people infected in the area.

The Kant Airbase incident brought back memories of Russian efforts to militarize (weaponize) Anthrax during the Cold War. Back then, when Kyrgyzstan was part of Russia (then called the Soviet Union) it was believed that weaponized Anthrax was tested in remote areas like Kyrgyzstan. But the Anthrax threat, as a biological weapon, turned out to be greatly exaggerated.

The 2001 Anthrax attacks in the United States, delivered by letter, killed one and infected less than a dozen others. A form of natural Anthrax was used. More will die and get ill but not from Anthrax. Millions of people are taking powerful antibiotics just in case they were infected. This massive use of antibiotics will cause other bacteria to become resistant to antibiotics and the resulting "super bugs" will kill a lot of people (a trend that has been noted over the last decade or so). The problem with Anthrax as a weapon is that you have to use it in secret and get a lot of people to breathe in the spores. While the less lethal cutaneous form announces itself with an ugly sore (which can then be treated with antibiotics), the pulmonary (breathed in) form announces itself with flu like symptoms a few days after the infection. By then it is too late and death almost always follows. But if you know you have breathed it in (and a test can confirm this), you can be treated with antibiotics. So far, Anthrax has not really made the jump from livestock pest to biological warfare weapon.

 

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