Father of US germ warfare dies

Posted in Bioterrorism at 7:15 am by George Smith

William Patrick, the father of the original US germ warfare program, has died. As this country’s chief biowar scientist during the Cold War, Patrick perfected the applied misuse of rabbit fever and weaponized anthrax.

He was 84, as noted by an obituary today in the Washington Post here.

In the Nineties, Patrick was a central character in lurid books and articles on biological warfare by Richard Preston and Judith Miller. Miller along with co-authors at the New York Times, produced Germs, a history of worldwide biowar programs, including that of the United States during the Cold War.

After 9/11 and the anthrax mailings, it was generally thought Patrick would have a lot to contribute to the discovery and netting of the anthrax mailer.

This did not pan out.

Patrick was, however, noted in the Post for having written a report for the US government, years before the anthrax attack, on the lethal potential of its spores in the mail.

“[Patrick] had been commissioned to write a report on the effectiveness of an anthrax attack spread through the mail system,” writes the Post today. “In the report, Mr. Patrick described how an envelope laced with 2.5 grams of anthrax could do significant harm by direct and indirect contact.”

The paper notes this was about the same amount used by Bruce Ivins.

The newspaper lists a number of Patrick’s career milestones.

However, many microbiologists would fairly consider them dubious.

Patrick held five secret patents on the weaponization of anthrax. And according to the Post:

Under Mr. Patrick’s direction, scientists at Fort Detrick developed a tularemia agent that, if disseminated by airplane, could cause casualties and sickness over thousands of square miles, according to tests carried out by the U.S. government.

Patrick and his US biowar teams “conducted mock attacks in places bustling with people, including the New York subway system and Washington National Airport, in the latter case releasing anthrax simulants hidden in suitcases.”

One example was famous for its inclusion in college level microbiology texts.

Back in 2006, I wrote here:

From a common college textbook, “Fundamentals of Microbiology” by I. Edward Alcamo:

“Perhaps the most famous and controversial use of [Serratia marcescens] was the US Army’s ‘Operation Sea-spray,’ conducted in 1951 and 1952. To study wind currents that might carry biological weapons, scientists filled balloons with cultures of [the organism] and burst them over the ocean near San Francisco . . . Shortly thereafter, doctors at close by Stanford Hospital noted an unusual outbreak outbreak of pneumonia and urinary tract infections among hospital patients. They isolated Serratia in some of these cases, but could not establish the source . . . Serratia pneumonia is accompanied by patches of bronchopneumonia, and in some cases, substantial tissue destruction in the lungs . . . In addition, it is a widespread agent of urinary tract disease.”

US biowar scientists did not think Serratia marcescens could cause illness. It did. However, the microbe was of interest because it is easy to identify.

When cultured at room temperature, many strains of it turn a bright red from production of a compound called prodigiosin.

“Mr. Patrick was often called on to provide testimony for hearings involving bioterrorism, and was known to participate with zeal,” reported the Post.

This blog also reprinted excerpts from a Patrick seminar on preparedness for biological and chemical attack in 1995, discussing how he could attack the World Trade Center with tularemia:

“In this next situation, we are going to attack the World Trade Center with crude tularemia; francisella tularensis,” continues Patrick.

“I want to use 1,000 blood auger plates that you can buy practically anywhere: hospital supply houses, for instance. I can scrape 1,000 of these plates in 2 hours without a problem. I am going to scrape with a cotton swap so that I get confluent growth. In about 36 hours I am going to wash off the material that has grown there. I am going to wash it off with saline. If the terrorist is wise he is going to add a little sugar to maintain isotensity of the cell wall, cell membrane. I am going to Waring-blend this mixture and then I am going to filter it through cheese cloth.

“I am going to use a garden sprayer to disseminate the material. The critical point here, in addition to the agent, is that the garden sprayer has got to develop 90 psi; if it is less than that, you can forget it.

“One thousand plates with this little scheme will yield 5 liters of product or 1.32 gallons of material. Trust me on this. The agent concentration is not like a sophisticated production facility, but we have five times 108 of these cells per milliliter. The dose for man is a very conservative 50 cells; I could as easily have used 10 cells if it is fresh material. The garden sprayer has a 2-gallon capacity, 90 psi, one split orifice. I am going to disseminate at the rate of 1 gallon per 10 minutes, and I am going to use a very low disseminating efficiency because garden sprayers are not very efficient. I am going to get 0.001 percent of the material that I have. Attacking the World Trade Center with your good friend tularemia!”

“. . . Finally, I believe that a dedicated terrorist group can produce crude BW agents with simple procedures, with readily available equipment. I think they can jerry rig disseminating devices from equipment that can be purchased from a local hardware store. They can infect and kill large numbers of people in confined areas like buildings. The Pennsylvania Turnpike tunnel was a very interesting study, classified, of course. The subway systems in New York, Chicago, and Washington. They will certainly produce panic and hysteria.”

If you read Patrick’s entire presentation in the original, along with the rest of those from the old bioterror-is-coming lobby, the audience doesn’t quite get Bill Patrick. A couple venture to say, logically, that if everything is possible just as he says it is, there’s nothing anyone can do. The terrorists will strike, lots of people will get sick and die, and emergency services will be crushed.

This has not turned out to be the case.

The Post ended on this note:

Despite the macabre nature of his work at Fort Detrick, Mr. Patrick spoke about how vital his profession was to national security.

“We did not sit around talking about the moral implications of what we were doing,” he told the Baltimore Sun in 2004. “We were problem-solving.”

Opinions, of course, differ.

(H/T to SA)

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