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For example, data on the infectiousness of an agent varies widely, depending on the agent. Because of limited experience with anthrax, susceptibility data have often been extrapolated from animal trials that have little bearing on human response to agents. In the case of smallpox, with which scientists had much experience in the 20th century, some factors remain uncertain, such as the transmission rate.

In the models of bioweapons attacks, the ability to weaponize an agent and disperse it effectively is estimated in part from open-air trials done by the U.S. Army between the 1940s and 1960s. These trials used live simulants of agents on major U.S. cities, but the behavior of a real bioweapon agent in such a situation remains uncertain. Williams’s article doesn’t describe in any detail the ability of terrorists to weaponize any of the theorized agents. Yet making effective bioweapons would take a tremendous amount of work.

While a state-sponsored program might have the means to do that work, terrorist groups probably don’t. With so much uncertainty surrounding the outcome of a bioweapons attack, it does not make sense to plan extensive biodefense programs when more-certain threats, particularly those involving nuclear weapons, require attention.

Allison M. Macfarlane is a research associate in the Science, Technology, and Global Security Working Group in MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society.

Home page illlustration by Otto Steininger.

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