Infectious diseases such as Ebola could be used as a “biological weapon” but the UAE is prepared to deal with such acts of bioterrorism, a conference in the capital heard on Tuesday.
The Ebola outbreak in West Africa has claimed more than 10,000 lives as of last week and biosecurity measures should be in place to stop the misuse of such viruses by bioterrorists, experts said.
“We understand the possible misuse of biological agents, which could easily be transported across the borders as part of trade. But the UAE has strict procedures and controls to deal with such threats,” said Dr Rashid Bin Fahd, Minister of Environment and Water.
He was delivering the keynote speech at the second Biosecurity Conference organised by the Ministry of Environment and Water in Abu Dhabi.
The UAE has criminalised such activities and strict legislations are in place to tackle them.
A proper mechanism is in place to address any biosecurity threat and emergencies as part of ensuring national security, the minister said.
Martien Broekhuijsen, a biosecurity consultant from the Netherlands, differentiated between biosafety and biosecurity, saying “biosafety is keeping bad bugs away from people whereas biosecurity is keeping bad people away from bugs”.
He said people who see bioterorism as a growing threat think that its sources are available everywhere and a small quanity is enough to cause damage.
However, some others believe that biological weapons are danagerous and difficult to handle, and hence not a major threat, and it is easy to kill bio-agents.
But the nations have to be prepared against such threats, Broekhuijsen said.
Dr David R. Franz, Former Commander of the US Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases, said lack of proper legislations is a major problem in maintaining biosecurity. When the US authorities apprehended a scientist in the 1990s for misusing a biological agent, he was punished with 200 hours of community service. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) found that there was no legislation to punish such crimes, he said. Since then the US has been taking adequate measures to check such crimes. The US has allocated around $6 billion (Dh22.02 billion ) since 2002 for research in biosecurity, he said.
Dr Fiona Thompson Carter, a biosecurity expert from New Zealand, explained the steps her country has taken to check this menace.
Nasser Mohammad Humaid Al Yammahi, Director of Media and Public Information at the National Emergency Crisis and Disasters Management Authority, said the media has a major role in maintaining biosecurity. The UAE’s biosecurity strategy has clearly defined the media’s role and guidelines in this regard, he said.
Dr Rashid Hamdan Al Ghafiri, an Emirati expert on biosecurity, said anthrax letter attacks by terrorists in the US in 2001 were a good example of the potential of biological weapons.
Soon after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, letters laced with anthrax began appearing in US mail. Five Americans were killed and 17 were sickened in what became the worst biological attacks in US history, according to the FBI.
The ensuing investigation by the FBI and its partners — code-named “Amerithrax” — has been one of the largest and most complex in the history of law enforcement.
In August 2008, the Department of Justice and FBI officials announced a breakthrough in the case and released documents and information showing that charges were about to be brought against Dr Bruce Ivins, who took his own life before those charges could be filed. On February 19, 2010, the Justice Department, the FBI, and the US Postal Inspection Service formally concluded the investigation into the 2001 anthrax attacks and issued an Investigative Summary, according to FBI.