Is it possible to weaponize the Ebola virus and use it to attack US troops, or civilians?
As thousands of American soldiers head to Liberia with the mission of containing the Ebola outbreak, and with the death Wednesday of the first patient diagnosed with Ebola in the United States, it is a question coming up in discussions within the Pentagon.
It is the particular job of Pentagon officials – paid to plan for every catastrophic possibility, however remote – to explore whether terrorist groups might try to use Ebola for nefarious ends.
Within the Department of Defense itself, this job falls to Andrew Weber, assistant secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs.
Early in his career, Mr. Weber “spent a lot of time” in the biological weapons laboratories of the former Soviet Union.
He was studying the viruses and bacteria that the USSR had developed into weapons. “Many of those were obtained in places like Africa and Southeast Asia,” Weber says.
Some of the more alarmist scenarios have posited that somebody could do the same with Ebola. Peter Walsh, who studies a field called biological anthropology at the University of Cambridge in Britain, told the British tabloid The Sun, for example, that the virus could be used to create a dirty bomb.
Most researchers in the field, however, have pushed back strongly against that notion.
The Ebola virus is “not hearty in the environment,” Weber says. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that the disease is contagious only when patients have symptoms of the disease, and then only when caregivers or others come into contact with bodily fluids.
For this reason, it does not lend itself to “easy exploitation” by terrorist groups, says Weber, who is leaving the Defense Department this week to head the State Department’s Ebola task force.
Still, “there is a risk that terrorist groups could obtain access to blood or tissue samples,” he says, but only “infect a few people.”
Suicide-mission-minded terrorists might also “infect themselves and get on an airplane,” Weber adds.
“So there’s risk, and we need to make sure it’s not exploited in the current circumstances.” But, he adds, “It’s not a grave risk.”
During a news briefing Tuesday, reporters grilled Gen. David Rodriguez, head of US Africa Command, about the rules of engagement if US soldiers need to defend themselves against someone who might have an Ebola infection.
“We have the same rules of engagement everywhere we go,” General Rodriguez said. “But I want to make sure that you also understand, when these people get infected, they are not capable of, you know, doing a mounted attack or anything.”