When a terrorist cult released lethal sarin gas in a crowded Tokyo subway in 1995--killing 12 people and making hundreds of others ill--police, fire, and emergency rescue teams rushed to the scene to treat and evacuate those who were ill and to contain the damage. In that case, it was apparent immediately that a toxic substance had been released. But what would have happened if the terrorists had released deadly organisms such as those that cause smallpox or anthrax?

A microbe released into the atmosphere would be invisible, odorless, and tasteless. The attack probably would not be discovered until days or even weeks later, when sick people would begin arriving in emergency rooms and doctors' offices. Rather than being contained at the attack site, diseases would spread far beyond those who were originally exposed. Such biological weapons, in terms of their potential destructiveness and the panic and civil disorder that...

Interested in reading more?

Become a Member of

Receive full access to digital editions of The Scientist, as well as TS Digest, feature stories, more than 35 years of archives, and much more!