The BBC reported today that the World Health Organization has identified the latest outbreak as representing a “completely new strain” of the dangerous bacteria.
While such outbreaks have occurred throughout the world before, and while widespread infections are not unheard of, there are a few characteristics about this particular outbreak that should have anti-terrorism experts and biological weapons watchdog groups on full alert.
According to the BBC report:
–> The WHO identified the E. Coli bacteria as a genetically new form of the bacteria.
–> This new form specifically causes haemolytic-uraemic syndrome (HUS) which affects the kidneys and the blood.
–> Scientists at Beijin Genomics Institute reported that this particular strain is especially infectious and toxic.
–> Experts report this outbreak is unique due to the high number of cases of haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS).
This new strain comes from two known strains – enteroaggregative E. coli (EAEC) and enterohemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC).
According to Dr. Paul Wigley, the most toxic elements of each strain have been combined to form a newer, deadlier strain of E. Coli with two toxins that attack the kidneys as well as the central nervous system.
Sounds like something a mad scientist would do…or maybe a terrorist?
Is the World Facing Genetically Modified E. Coli?
The new strain of E. Coli seems almost genetically modified not only to be especially toxic, but there are indications that it specifically avoids infecting children.
This strain of E. coli is causing HUS in adults. Not only that, it is also avoiding children, and seems to be focusing primarily on women.
According to Dr. Dilys Morgan of the Health Protection Agency, adults typically do not have HUS, children do. Dr. Morgan told reporters:
“It mainly affects young children and older adults, but what we’ve seen is predominantly young females getting this condition.”
University of Aberdeen microbiologist Hugh Pennington went even further to state that the outbreak is specifically not affecting children.
“This outbreak is unusual in that it doesn’t seem to be targeting young children. Children under five have had a very hard time with this kind of bug in the past, they seem to be escaping it, maybe just due to the nature of the food that’s causing the problem.”
E. Coli as a Biological Weapon
E. Coli has long been considered by biological weapons experts as a weapon of choice.
For example, in the 1960s, as revealed by a declassified MoD report, the Porton Down laboratory in Ireland conducted trial bio-warfare tests with the bacteria near two population centers – Swindon and Southampton.
The tests involved releasing the bacteria into the environment and the report referred to the bacteria as especially valuable in that “highly satisfactory results” could be achieved with such a weapon.
In 2002, the CDC studied disease reporting laws for twenty-four biological agents that could be used as weapons, including anthrax, botulism and E. coli.
In developing the list of agents, officials focused on factors like morbidity and mortality, the stability of the agent that allows for distribution in a population, the ease with which it can be mass produced, and especially the use of such an agent to create public fear and “potential civil disruption.”
In 1997, Dr. R.E. Hurlbert of Washington State University wrote that genetically modifying E. coli in particular is not very difficult, but the ability for public health officials to tell the difference has become very difficult.
“Defining the target systems and the nature of a particular BW is not difficult, but deciding if it is a ‘natural biological product’ or one constructed by genetic engineering is becoming more difficult as our knowledge and skills improve in these technologies. For the purposes of this discussion I define a ‘Natural BW’ as one obtained from wild type strains or from selected mutants randomly induced spontaneously or by classical mutagenic procedures (e.g. exposure to UV or X-ray irradiation, chemical mutagenesis etc.). Therefore a ‘genetically engineered BW’ is defined as one constructed by the nonrandom modification of a gene.”
So then the question remains, is this latest E. coli strain a natural mutation, or one that was artificially created for use as a weapon?
EHEC is Known as a “Genetic Workhorse”
This problem is compounded by the fact that E. coli can be genetically modified very easily. In the list of biological agents at cbwinfo.com, the online information warehouse on chemical and biological weapons, the EHEC toxin (the one from the current outbreak that is causing HUS), only became recognized as a threat in the 1980s.
In its original form, the verotoxin could be especially fatal for children and the elderly. It is also listed as:
“…the workhorse of molecular genetics and genetic engineering. It may be relatively easy to modify EHEC into a potent biological weapon using relatively unsophisticated technology.”
One thing terrorists are known for is being especially creative in building weapons using unsophisticated technology. And the fact that this latest outbreak includes this “genetic workhorse” suggests that this could potentially be the work of biological terrorism.
Authorities Struggle to Find the Source
This new strain has more “aggressive genes”, making it a dangerous, potentially deadly weapon. According to WHO food safety expert Hilde Kruse, this strain is “…more virulent and toxin-producing than the many E. coli strains people naturally carry in their intestines.”
Authorities, initially searching for the source in Spain, have come up empty. All anyone knows is that the original source location was in Germany. Nine European countries have been impacted so far.
Out of over 1,500 people sickened, 470 have developed rare kidney complications. And that is the immediate biological complication, but there are no reported statistics yet on the neurological effects the outbreak may have over the long term.
Kruse also stated to reporters that the mutation could be entirely natural. She states that it is common for such bacteria strains to swap genes. She also suggested the source of contamination could be from an animal – such as manure used as fertilizer that is contaminated with the new strain.
“One should think of an animal source. Many animals are hosts of various types of toxin-producing E. coli.”
However, Kruse admitted that this particular strain is especially unique in what segment of the population it targets – adult women.
Russia isn’t taking any chances. The country has banned all imports of vegetables from Europe until the source and cause of the disease is identified.
The United Arab Emirates have also banned imports of cucumbers from Spain and surrounding countries. Spain is threatening to seek compensation from Germany and the EU for making false claims about Spain being the the likely source of the disease.
Image Credit: Washington Times