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How anthraxiety infected Europe

After 11 September, Germany witnessed an unhappy marriage between fears of terrorism and concerns about biotechnology - providing fertile ground for an anthrax panic.

Thomas Deichmann

Topics Politics

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Before 11 September, nobody worried when they found a bit of washing powder on their desk. After the first anthrax case in Florida in October 2001, such a finding was seen as a potential bioterror-attack.

The fear of ‘bioterrorism’ (a phrase hardly used before 11 September) overnight reached panic levels across the globe, and quickly infected Germany. In October 2001, one suspicious letter found at a job centre in Thueringen set Germany’s alarm bells ringing. A quick test for bacteria in the powder showed positive results. About a week later, it was discovered that the bacteria was not anthrax and that the letter was absolutely harmless.

The anthrax panics in Germany and elsewhere were based on an unhealthy zeitgeist. There is little history of bioterrorism – yet it informs ongoing and heated discussions. One single case of bioterrorism is documented, when a religious sect in Oregon (USA) in 1984 infected various salad buffets with salmonella, in an attempt to discourage people from voting at the local elections. This caused 750 people to fall ill, but made no difference to the outcome of the elections. The Aum sect in Japan planned to spread anthrax throughout Tokyo in 1993, but did not succeed.

There is a big difference between cultivating a bacterium in vitro, and using it as a weapon. There is an even bigger difference between fact and fiction when the subject of bioterrorism is discussed.

The phrase ‘bioterrorism’ holds a special attraction for our nervous post-millennial world. Its appeal is based, more than anything, on fears about modern biotechnology, which seek expression in the bioterrorism discussion. Before 11 September, worries about cloning and genetically modified crops made the headlines. After 11 September, we witnessed an unhappy marriage between fears of terrorism and concerns about biotechnology.

The crowd of commentators who jumped enthusiastically on the bioterrorism discussion seemed to seek the ultimate proof that science, progress and change can lead only to disaster. Particularly for commentators who already had made their name condemning genetic technology, every suspicious anthrax letter around the globe was seen as evidence that the biotech sciences are creating an alliance with the devil.

This mood was particularly strong in Germany in late 2001, where anthraxiety overtook all the other fears related to the terrorist attacks. There was a clear reason for this: in the months before 11 September, controversies around biotechnology had dominated the German press.

In a country where Green Party ministers are responsible for the environment, agriculture and food affairs, speculation about the potential risks and dangers of genetically modified crops reached its peak in 2001. When, last summer, some GM seed for maize from the USA with new insect-resistance traits ‘illegally’ reached German farmland, major concerns were provoked about how this could be avoided – as though these seeds were toxic. So Germany provided especially fertile ground for an anthrax panic after 11 September.

Some green activists shamelessly piggybacked on the anthrax scares to create new panics about biotechnology. They held conferences that were supposedly about biological warfare, with the sole aim of telling us that if we did not stop progress in biotechnology, the world would quickly perish.

In Australia, this collapsing of the two concerns was demonstrated very clearly. Shortly after 11 September, anti-biotech activists started a campaign against a new law to legalise the cultivation of GM crops. Their core argument was the fact that the anthrax bacterium, Bacillus anthracis (Ba), has a close relative called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). Bt is used in modern biotechnology. It provides GM crops with insect-resistance. It is also used as an insecticide in conventional and ecological farming. The bizarre conclusion that the campaigners drew from this was that Bt in GM crops could mutate into Ba, and result in an anthrax epidemic.

This scenario was as unsubstantial as most of the claims made by campaign groups about the potential danger that anthrax could be easily used as a bio-weapon. In theory, it is possible that Bt and Ba can interact and exchange some genes – including those responsible for the toxin in anthrax. Scientists have already operated such gene transfers in laboratory experiments. However, scientists concluded that it is practically impossible that such a scenario would occur in nature – for the simple reason that, although Bt and Ba are close relatives, they do not meet each other. Bt is a soil bacterium, which reproduces itself in insects. Ba prefers living in mammals.

At least the campaigners in Australia alluded to the fact that Bt and Ba are bacterial relatives, which brought this information to the surface, and helps explain why it is rather easy to create an anthrax panic: if you dig in a field of an organic farmer you can hardly miss Bt. The harmless Bt that has been put into envelopes has already led to hundreds of false anthrax alarms in the USA. And it is very likely that it was also the source of the first anthrax panic in Germany, where organic farming is very popular.

These examples indicate that anthraxiety in Germany, as in the rest of Europe and the USA, was less about anthrax than a reflection of a broader zeitgeist, which fears modern technology and demands that society organises against all kind of risks and ‘attacks’ – however absurd they may be in the real world.

Thomas Deichmann is editor of Novo magazine (Germany), co-author of Das Populäre Lexikon der Gentechnik, and is speaking at the spiked conference After 11 September: Fear and Loathing in the West, on Sunday 26 May at the Bishopsgate Institute in London. See here for full details.

Read on:

Anthraxiety, by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

spiked-issue: After 11 September

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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