No Sh*t Sherlock!

Andrew Johnston is pleased to see that the level of political understanding of CBRN incidents remains worryingly low…

Last week the UK Shadow Defence Secretary, Jim Murphy, broke the astonishing news to the government and the British public that the UK is “unprepared for a bioterrorism attack”, and that the fanatics armed with anthrax, smallpox and other deadly agents could present an even greater threat than conventional bombers in the 21st Century.

Anyone reading Mr. Murphy’s comments with a working knowledge of the murky complexity of CBRN, has thought: where to start? CBRNe World staff were a little frustrated to say the least at reading this sensationalist and highly misleading statement.

The term 'oversimplification’ doesn’t even get close to describing these comments. I could spend the next few pages going into the specific issues - with biological agents, biological detection and response - to only scratch the surface! The most galling part of these ridiculous comments is the underlying suggestion that somehow the responders and strategists who plan for such events have not done enough, or even that it should be a cause of national embarrassment that the British do not have an adequate strategy for a mass casualty, or 'doomsday’, event - as the Daily Mirror so tactfully put it.

These comments suggest to me that Mr. Murphy suffers from a surfeit of ignorance, his rather palsied political jab at the Tories shows his lack of understanding of the reasons why Britain, or indeed any country in the world, might particularly struggle with a mass biological attack. Technology for one thing is probably the major issue with detecting biological agents. Biological detectors are simply not quite up to the task of accurately detecting and identifying the truly overwhelming number of possible biological agents out there. Anthrax alone has 89 different strains, although admittedly only a few of these are suitable as a weapon. On top of this, it is not simply a matter of identifying a molecule or particle as with other forms of detection: biological agents are just that, biological. They are living organisms with complex structures and proteins that must be identified. The technology simply doesn’t exist to do this accurately in the field, and even in a fully-equipped lab it can take over eight hours for identification. Symptoms are another issue: with a chemical or radiological attack, symptoms are relatively instantaneous; biological agents take time to present. Smallpox for example has a latent period of over twelve days, so should a covert biological attack take place it is more than likely that a hospital emergency room will be the first to know about it, and that would be a long time after the moment of 'attack’. There are also difficulties in producing a biological weapon [not to mention disseminating it. Ed.] making it probably not quite as likely as the use of conventional explosives.

It is worth mentioning that both the Home Office in the UK and the Department of Homeland Security in the US have flagged the issues with biological detection, and until very recently the Home Office cleared no bio-detectors at all for responder use due to their lack of reliability. This has changed, and with a little bit of UOR funding, they have filled the gap.

Mr. Murphy goes on to say, “Bioterrorism both exposes significant weaknesses in our security architecture and is a threat which could cause mass suffering”. He is, of course, correct that there are major issues at stake when dealing with biological terrorism, weaknesses that are dependent on technological advances in biological agent identification. He is also absolutely correct in saying that a biological weapon could cause mass suffering - I rather think that is why it’s called a 'weapon’.
What Mr Murphy has failed to realise, or chosen to ignore, is that this is hardly a revelation. First responders, manufacturers and planners have been aware of this for quite some time, and all I would say to Mr Murphy is: they know, and they’re working on it.

It is a little disturbing that a politician whose entire working day is devoted to the understanding of defence issues could make such a ludicrously misleading and fatuous statement. A statement that not only does a discredit to our CBRN responders and scientists but is negligent to the point of simply attention seeking given the general public awareness of such issues and on the eve of hosting the Olympic games.

Tags: Detection, Security, Emergency, Threat, Identification, CBRNe, Chemical, Detector, Biological, Radiological, Explosive

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