Lecture outlines struggle to contain chemical weapons

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Biological weapons are one of the most dangerous and problematic issues of the 21st century. They attack swiftly and violently, leaving widespread fear and paranoia in their wake.

“There’s something very visceral about people’s fear of biological weapons…in the U.S.,” said Jill Trewhella, professor of biosciences at the University of Sydney, speaking at the Eccles Institute of Human genetics Wednesday.

“People tend to overreact, and that leads to a dangerous amount of fear and unrest,” Trewhella said. She lectured on the role of microbial forensics in eliminating the threat of biological weapons.

Addressing threats of biological weapons requires a broad bio-surveillance and DNA-based microbial forensics. Scientists study the genetic makeup of biological weapons to identify their origins and eliminate their threat to civilian populations.

“The University of Utah has a great responsibility to take research into end products. That research goes into vaccines and diagnostics,” Trewhella said.

Brandon Barnes, a graduate student in the molecular biology, outlined the need for continued research into infectious diseases.

“Nobody is safe from the spread of biological weapons,” Barnes said. “This work is important to understand their use and to help eliminate their development.”

Although biological weapons have been used for many years, the United States didn’t experience their wrath until 2001 when anthrax was delivered through the mail system and resulted in five deaths.

In 2003, incidents of exposure to ricin-a poison that prevents cells from making protein-heightened the U.S. government’s interest in technology to detect and trace biological attacks.

The government developed a defensive strategy to protect and treat citizens through the use of vaccines, antibiotics and quarantines. Emphasis was placed on detecting and diagnosing attacks quickly and accurately to eliminate the threat of infectious diseases.

In 1995, a remote desert facility was discovered 80 kilometers west of Baghdad in Al Hakam, Iraq. The facility was heavily guarded, and the Iraqi government claimed to be producing insecticide in the area.

After running a series of genome mapping tests, investigators discovered the facility was actually producing anthrax.

An inspection carried out by the United Nations Special Commission forced the Iraq government to admit they had been operating a biological weapons program centered in Al Hakam.

“The work of microbial forensics deals with both scientific and political dimensions,” Trewhella said. “Another big aspect of the research is the way nations deal with one another.”

According to the U.S. Department of Defense, more than 10 countries are suspected of having continuing biological warfare programs, including Russia, Israel, China, Iran, Libya, Syria and North Korea.

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