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Fighting bioterrorism – Europe works on master plan

Biological toxins, viruses and bacteria pose a very real threat to our safety. Image credit: PLANTFOODSEC
Biological toxins, viruses and bacteria pose a very real threat to our safety. Image credit: PLANTFOODSEC

Specialist laboratories capable of detecting biological weapons are coming together to try to work on a master plan so that Europe is ready in the case of a bioterrorist attack.

Bioterrorism is the intentional release of harmful biological agents such as bacteria, viruses, or toxins. To protect citizens and national infrastructure, the race is on to improve Europe’s preparedness.

‘We are at a critical moment,’ said Dr Brigitte Dorner, coordinator of the EQuATox research project, which is working to network Europe’s toxin laboratories together. ‘In light of the attempted release of biological toxins in the past we have to make sure that we are well prepared.’

Technology to test for harmful agents is already being used, but laboratories currently use different testing methods, making any comparison of accuracy and sensitivity nearly impossible.

EQuATox, funded by the EU, has been tasked with developing research and best practices by establishing a network of laboratories among EU and associated countries. The project has so far linked 35 expert laboratories from 20 countries.

‘With the information obtained in large international proficiency tests, we now have for the first time a clear picture of where we stand in terms of biotoxin detection; this serves as starting point for further development and improvement,’ said Dr Dorner.

Response

If a bioterrorism attack was to occur, two information exchange systems are already in place within Europe. The Early Warning and Response System and the Rapid Alert System help connect the European Commission and national public health authorities in order to implement quick measures to control an outbreak.

While these systems support management actions, such as containment and distribution of medicine, dedicated laboratory networks are necessary because they prevent potential biothreats by linking experts specialised in detection and identification.

‘We are at a critical moment.’  

Dr Brigitte Dorner, Robert-Koch Institute, Germany

In terms of biological toxins, EQuATox has identified several expert laboratories which are well prepared for a potential incident and, in the case of an outbreak, would be able to support other countries.

‘This is a clear benefit of the project because incidents of biological toxins being intentionally released have occurred, like the ricin letters sent to Barack Obama in 2013,’ said Dr Dorner.

Ricin is a poison produced by the Ricinus communis plant to protect itself from insect pests. It is one of the most powerful plant toxins known today. Due to its toxicity, the poison has a history of military, criminal and terroristic use.

Common ground

There are several tests to detect ricin, including analysing samples of suspicious materials and tests on human body fluids. But now, EQuATox’s approach to detecting ricin, along with other biological toxins, is helping establish a European common ground in bioterrorism prevention.

Along with bioterrorism, the potential for terrorist attacks against agriculture, also known as agroterrorism, is increasingly recognised as a threat to international security.

‘Those affected will not be just the farmers and input providers, but also shippers, merchants, food retailers and the restaurant trade. It could also affect the tourism and transport sector,’ said Dr Paola Colla of the University of Turin, Italy, who is project manager at PLANTFOODSEC, a research project identifying agroterroism threats.

The PLANTFOODSEC project found that current EU capabilities to detect and respond to agroterrorism, or biocriminal acts, are very modest and divided among too many unrelated organisations.

In response, the project is establishing a virtual plant and food biosecurity centre to enhance international preparedness against agroterrorism. It focuses on biological threats that have the capacity to affect and damage agriculture, infect plants, and ultimately affect food and feed at any stage in the supply chain.

‘We have 600 pathogens which we analysed in terms of their economic effect on specific crops and potential threat level,’ said Dr Colla.

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Ricin seeds produce a deadly poison which has been used in military and terror attacks. Image credit: EQuATox

PLANTFOODSEC also has 13 partners located in eight different countries including the United States, Turkey, and Israel. The project has a unit working on hazard analysis, doing trials on certain pests and pathogens to determine how to tackle outbreaks. There is also a unit that visits farms to provide direct advice to farmers and to collect soil and plant samples as new diseases can arrive every year.

‘Agroterrorism is seen as a genuine threat by intelligence services because it’s an effective means for a terrorists to generate fear,’ said Dr Colla. ‘If something happens in Europe, then we need to be prepared in order to avoid something like the E. coli outbreak in Germany.’

The 2011 German E. coli outbreak highlighted the urgent need for rapid and reliable analytical methods. At the beginning, the source of the pathogen was thought to have come from Spanish cucumbers, but it was in fact from fenugreek seeds imported from Egypt and used in salads in the EU.

The extended process resulted in entire cucumber crops being destroyed and demand plummeting across Europe, which in turn caused farmers to suffer. The total economic losses were estimated between EUR 0.5 billion and EUR 3.2 billion.

Incidents such as these provide timely scientific inputs to enable a response to potential agroterrorism threats. This research can then be used to develop preventive crisis management to different intentional or unintentional outbreaks.

‘We publish a lot of research on plant pests, epidemiology and diagnostics,’ said Dr Colla. ‘These results can be used not just in terms of bioterrorism, but also for unintentional threats because we now have protocols to eradicate particular pathogens.’

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