Israel’s Barak discusses biological threats in Middle East

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, a speaker at BioSecurity 2002, now underway in Las Vegas, discusses with Science Blog editor Ben Sullivan issues facing Israel and the Middle East in the biosecurity realm.

Beyond Iraq, to what extent do bioweapons represent a likely threat to Israel and other Middle East countries? Do you believe they are seen as a legitimate weapon by the powerplayers behind the intifada, for example, or does the region’s concentrated geography actually play against the likelihood of their use?

Iraq is clearly the major player of bio-weapon in the region. Syria might be interested in it as a part of its “Strategic Answer” vis a vis the per claimed nuclear capabilities of Israel, namely as a deterrence element. Palestinian terror might not be able to use it on major scale for the reasons you have mentioned…Has there ever been a biological attack on Israel, successful or otherwise, and how has the country prepared for the possibility of one?

There was none but out of our overall exposure in a violent neighborhood, Israel prepares itself by accommodating highly aggressive wide-spectrum anti-biotic – against Anthrax and vaccination of over 10,000 first responders against smallpox in order to have enough serum for a case where fully fledge vaccination would be needed. Some other preparations cannot be exposed for obvious reasons.

A likely scenario in the event of a U.S. invasion of Iraq is that Saddam Hussein would attempt to launch Scuds at Israel, possibly including missiles armed with biological pathogens. It raises the question, what is an appropriate response to a bioattack from a nation-state, as opposed to from a terrorist group. As prime minister, what cards would be on the table to retaliate against an attack that killed hundreds or thousands of Israelis?

If someone would attack Israel he should expect the most severe and painful response. I hope no one will ever try us on this.

Israel is the frequent victim of traditional attacks, particularly from explosives-laden suicide bombers. Does the notion of someone releasing smallpox or anthrax become somewhat esoteric, when there here and now is decidedly low-tech bombs going off and killing people?

Israel lives together with the Palestinians at each other back yard. I, for example, live in Kochav Yair, which is a mile from the Palestinian city of Kalkiia. I do not believe that a massive use of bio-terror is a clever strategy. But no guaranty against it could be provided.

The U.S. Congress reported this week that the Air Force is losing key personnel, particularly pilots, because the people don’t want to receive the anthrax vaccine, whose side effects they fear. Has Israel experienced the same phenomenon, and how has it dealt with the problem?

Until now we have not vaccinated any group of individuals on a wide scale against Anthrax. There is a clear need for a crash R&D program for the development of vaccines, medications defensive means and “real time” detection systems for bio-security needs. That will include, inter alia, vaccines against Anthrax with weaker side effects.

For more from Barak and others bioterrorism experts, visit BioSecurity 2002, organized by Harvard Medical and Key3Media, now underway in Las Vegas.

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