Are we prepared for the deliberate use of chemical and biological materials in Australia?

By Dr Rebecca Hoile, Torrens Resilience Institute, World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre, Flinders University

Effective response for an all-hazard emergency is underpinned by proper preparedness measures.

Yet are we prepared for the deliberate use of chemical and biological materials?

A deliberate event involving toxic and pathogenic agents fundamentally transforms the context in which public health, emergency responders, border and animal health services will react, bringing with it special considerations that distinguish it from a natural or accidental release.

The chemical attacks in Syria and Iraq may not seem close to home, yet they reflect the evolution of terrorism towards the use of non-conventional weapons, giving rise to the increased threats from ISIS and others to use chemical and biological agents to cause harm.

Recent arrests in Europe have identified plots to use bacteria, toxins and chemicals, to contaminate food and water, and in some cases discovering actual materials in transit to a crime. Coupled with this, the unwavering threats posted by ISIS on their media program, point to their intention to obtain, manufacture and use CBR materials as a means to cause panic, fear and ultimately loss of social normality.

Advancing science and technology and its dual-use capacity, reminds us of the double-edged sword phenomenon related to medical and scientific genome sequencing, nanotechnology and DIY-Biology. Identifying potential risks and ways to mitigate them would require dedicated horizon scanning, assessment and outreach to industry and the community.

Think it’s too difficult to access some of these materials or precursors?

In fact a crude preparation of some CBR agents can be manufactured using house hold items and investigations into the darknet has uncovered a plethora of transactions, many of which have been associated with CBR materials. But actually we need only look to nature who consistently surprises us with new and re-emerging pathogens, mostly viruses, including the recent Ebola and MERS-CoV outbreaks.

Are we better now at reacting to natural outbreaks of unknown disease, what impact would a deliberate release of a contagious pathogen have on society?

The use of CBR materials in criminal cases is not restricted to terrorists, in fact the use of these materials to cause harm is populated by more domestic criminal cases including, murder, suicide, extortion and hoaxes, causing devastating events across a number of countries worldwide. But let’s not rule out the use of these materials by known terrorist groups or supporters, as many Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTF) return to their country of origin.

While it can be said that this type of crime is too sophisticated, it cannot be ruled out and should therefore form the basis for future considerations for emergency management and those that have a role to play in the coordination of such a deliberate event.

During a recent international forum on deliberate chemical and biological incidents, hosted by the Torrens Resilience Institute, Flinders University, a number of key considerations were identified including, rapid assessment and crisis communication, impact on infrastructure and the environment, impact on health services, economic impact on trade and investment and increased fear and misunderstanding.

Despite the low occurrence, high impact nature of these events, we can build our resilience by incorporating targeted training and capacity building into existing emergency management strategies, and by identifying specialist’s roles and agencies including, border protection, health investigators and food defence as key priorities.

The most critical factor in a CBR incident is ‘time’, the need for speed in identifying the triggers and indicators of a suspicious event, regular and effective communication and information sharing, and the rapid collection of vital evidence required to bring those responsible to justice.

To discuss issues raised in this blog please contact Dr Hoile at [email protected] or Torrens Resilience Institute Executive Officer, Johanna Garnett [email protected]