The Basics of Being Prepared for Bioterrorism

"y'all ready to do this? All right... to the bat cave!!" GIF

Since you’re almost certainly a PhD candidate in epidemiology, this will be easy as pie to you! Oh, you’re not? Well, it will still be pretty easy. To be prepared for bioterrorism attacks, you have to know three things:

  • What bioterrorism is,
  • The classification of bioterror agents and delivery methods, and
  • The signs of a bioterrorism attack.

See? Very easy. Read on!

What exactly is bioterrorism?

Here’s how INTERPOL and The United States Department of Homeland Security define bioterrorism.

“The intentional release of biological agents or toxins for the purpose of harming or killing humans, animals, or plants with the intent to intimidate or coerce a government or civilian population to further political or social objectives.”  

INTERPOL Bioterrorism incident pre-planning and response guide

A bio-attack the intentional release of a pathogen (disease-causing agent) or biotoxin (poisonous substance produced by a living organism) against humans, plants, or animals.  This may be through public health challenges, causing large numbers of deaths while being difficult to contain.

If you’re not a huge nerd who loves reading government documents, that means bioterrorism is any malicious action that relies on a biological or toxic element to succeed. For example, a garden variety mass shooting is not a bioterrorist attack, but if the perpetrator was instead intentionally dousing a crowd with pesticide, it would qualify as a bioterrorist attack due to the toxic element. Note also that actions against plants and animals fall into the category of bioterror.

Congratulations! You now know what bioterrorism is.

Classification of bioterrorism agents

Step two is to understand classifications. Bioterrorism agents can be classified as Type A, B, and C, with Type A being the highest priority threat, and C being the lowest.

Rule of Thumb

Between you and me, this is a little bit niche, so don’t worry too much about these classification details as long as you understand how deadly an agent is, how easy it is to obtain or create, and and how quickly it can spread.

Category A

Category B

Category C

  • Easily disseminated and/or contagious

  • High mortality rates

  • Might disrupt society

  • Requires special action for public health preparedness
Examples: Anthrax, Ebola
  • Moderately easy to disseminate

  • Moderate illness rates, low mortality

  • Requires enhanced diagnostic capacity, and surveillance
Examples: Salmonella, Ricin toxin
  • Widely available

  • Easy to produce

  • Potential for high morbidity rates

  • Can be engineered for mass dissemination
Examples: Emerging infectious diseases like hantavirus

Congratulations! You understand bioterror classifications!

How does a bioterrorism attack transpire?

The second part of our second step is to understand how biological agents can reach and affect your fragile body. The following methods are popular options.

  1. Aerosol dissemination
    Aerosol attacks can happen outdoors or indoors… anywhere there is air! You might hear about these attacks involving ventilation systems, subway systems, or airplanes. Enclosed spaces mean lower concentrations are required.
  2. Food or water contamination
    The YUM vector! Edible items are intentionally contaminated with pathogens or toxins. 
  3. Human carriers
    Our post-pandemic fave. Transmissible agents can spread by coughing, through body fluids, or via contaminated surfaces.
  4. Infected animals
    Double whammy! Illness is due to contact with animals or by consuming contaminated animal products. Savvy disaster guide consumers may know that contact with wild animals is a major source of naturally occurring epidemics and pandemics.
  5. Insects
    Don’t forget about the bugs. Insects naturally spread disease, and there are way more of them than there are animals. Anyone who can figure out how to control the bugs could use them in an attack.
  6. Physical distribution
    Good old home delivery! Whether you’re having plutonium stabbed into your arm with a spy pen, receiving some anthrax in the mail, or being doused with pesticide by a maniac, getting a direct line to your body is a great way for some agents to do their terrifying work.

Washing your hands using the recommended 20 second method may make you a hero in the event of a bioterrorism attack that relies on human carriers. Stop being gross and you could save a life.

Congratulations! You understand bioterror delivery methods!

The final piece of the puzzle awaits! Identifying the signs of bioterror attacks. The guy dousing you with pesticide will be easy to recognize as a bioterrorist, but the real appeal of bioterrorism is that its emulation or use of naturally occurring agents means it can be carried out much more covertly than standard terrorism. This makes it harder to pin down.

So here are the…

Key indicators of a bioterrorism attack

  • Generally, you’ll be able to notice a large wave of sick people rushing to ER for emergency care.
  • The illness is likely to be unusual and unexplained
  • If the disease is spread through animals, there might be a cluster of sick or dead animals.
  • There might also be a geographical pattern to the illness’s spread.

If a few of these indicators pop up at once, you’re in the danger zone for a bioterrorist attack! Bad Taco Tuesday at the middle school might cause an ER surge, but if the surge is mostly unexplained, get ready.

Congratulations! You now know the signs of bioterror.

Bioterrorism preparedness
We did it!

Now that you’ll be able to recognize what’s happening, you’ll want to know how to be prepared for a bioterrorism attack.

About the Authors

It takes a village! We are researching, writing and fact checking as a family. Collaboration is the name of the game, whether we’re running from a zombie horde or finding the best way to turn a complex concept into a deliciously digestible set of bullet points.

Katherine Esperanza is a Los Angeles based writer. When she's not conjuring new queer slice-of-life short stories, she's busy watching the newest films, out at queer shows, supporting queer artists, or just checking out the queer community as a whole.

A former international non-profiteer, small business owner, and co-op'er, Katherine is delighted to help introduce more leftist politics into the disaster preparedness/prepper sphere, which is currently far too right-wing.