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Why Ebola worries the Defense Department

A Liberian military policeman holds his rifle with gloves to avoid contact with the deadly Ebola virus during the burial of several Ebola victims in the Johnsonville community outside Monrovia, Liberia 02 August 2014. EPA/AHMED JALLANZO

While the public discourse on Ebola has so far been fixated on the public health hazard caused by the disease itself, it may also have awoken an older fear for anti-terror agencies: Could a lethal disease actually be used as a bio-weapon? That fear is made worse by the fact that the current outbreak is occurring near a volatile region that has seen the rise of a variety of terrorist groups nearby such as Boko Haram – the group that abducted more than 200 girls earlier this year.

The potential terror risk posed by Ebola does not only add a new dimension to the African outbreak, but it may also speed up efforts to find an effective treatment. The "secret serum" used to treat two Americans who are infected with the virus was developed by a biotech firm called Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc., which reportedly works with the National Institutes of Health as well as with the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (the latter a military agency specializing in bio-defense).  There are also other examples of U.S. interest in Ebola research. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Defense signed a $140 million contract with a company called Tekmira  to develop a treatment for Ebola infections, according to a statement by the company. After the collaboration was extended in 2013, Tekmira was granted a so-called Fast Track designation in March 2014 when the first cases of Ebola began to reemerge.

"That the U.S. government takes the potential of Ebola as a bio-terror agent seriously is clear from the fact that it has invested tens of millions of dollars in vaccine and therapy research over the last decade," says Peter D. Walsh, a professor at Cambridge University. When asked by The Post if the Department of Defense thought there was a serious risk of Ebola being used as a bio-weapon, Amy Derrick-Frost, a spokeswoman for the department, replied: "The Department of Defense maintains research interests both for protection against intentional use and natural exposure to many diseases that can impact the health of its personnel around the world, and that concern extends to viruses, such as Ebola."

Tekmira's studies were closely tied to the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases and partly funded by the U.S. Department of Defense’s Joint Project Manager Transformational Medical Technologies Office. On the program's Web site, its mission is defined as "protecting the Warfighter from emerging, genetically altered, and unknown biological threats."

While the U.S. government seems to be funding the Ebola vaccine research out of national security considerations, the outcome could save lives abroad. Without such support, the fight against Ebola would lag even further behind as it does today. "There are no financial incentives to develop a treatment because Ebola is such a rare disease," says University of Texas Medical Branch Professor Thomas W. Geisbert, who is currently working on a different Ebola project.

The fear of Ebola being abused by other states or terrorists is not theoretical: It dates back to the 1970s when the Soviet Union launched a program called VECTOR, aimed at researching biotechnology and virology. Kenneth Alibek, who claims to have worked for the secret biological weapons program of the Soviets, said in a 1998 interview that among his tasks had been "the creation of Ebola and Marburg biological weapons." And while some of his remarks and testimonies before Congress have since been questioned, the fear they raised never really went away.

In 1996, a magazine reported about another worrisome case involving a Japanese cult group called Aum Shinrikyo that traveled to Zaire in 1992 with the purpose of collecting samples of the Ebola virus. While the group's Ebola efforts probably failed, it ended up killing several dozen people with sarin nerve-gas in the Tokyo subway system in 1995. The U.S. government's recent funding efforts on Ebola research seem to be directly related to these incidents. "We have a long standing interest in highly fatal hemorrhagic fevers," Derrick-Frost explained. "Ebola is among a handful of emerging infectious diseases that have historically been explored as a potential biological weapon, and we are closely monitoring these types of infectious diseases."

Efforts to transform Ebola into a bio-weapon seem to have failed in the past, but could they succeed today? Experts doubt that west African terror groups are currently capable of abusing the Ebola virus for attacks in foreign countries. "You would need to have a lot of scientific skills to transform the virus in a way that it can be easily used as a weapon," Geisbert explains. Another reason to doubt Ebola's abuse by terrorists is that the virus does not spread readily between people, which would limit the number of casualties.

In 2013, Amanda M. Teckman published an essay in the Global Policy Journal that called on policymakers to not underestimate the danger posed by Ebola. The increase in recent outbreaks as well as the potential recruitment of experts aimed at acquiring the virus "should lead policymakers to consider the risk of a deliberate outbreak," Teckman wrote.

In an interview conducted via e-mail last weekend, she said that Ebola research was a national security issue, but had not been treated as such enough because of a low political will to make the issue a priority. Despite her criticism, she called a terror-attack "not probable" for two reasons: First, a terrorist organization would have to obtain a sample of Ebola with the help of "a highly trained scientist with knowledge of how to handle the virus." Second, the scientist would have to weaponize it. "This includes being able to create the necessary characteristics to use it, to store it, and to disperse of the agent. And this is very complicated," Teckman said.