It has unfortunately been an exceptionally busy week for those of us studying terrorism, bioterrorism, and pandemics. With new developments in the Boston bombing case, the ricin letters, and H7N9 in China seemingly happening by the hour, we can guarantee only that news included in this week’s report is current as of this (Friday) morning. In the meantime, our thoughts and good wishes remain with Boston.
Paul Kevin Curtis is accused of mailing three letters – one to Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker, one to President Obama, and one to a local justice of the peace – containing the toxin ricin. While the FBI has positively identified the toxin, further testing is needed to determine the concentration and purity of the substance. Curtis, who was identified in part by his signature on the letters – Curtis’ sign off of “KC” on the ricin letters matched previous letters sent to Senator Wicker’s office. Curtis’ family maintains he is mentally ill, and had refused to take appropriate medication. Now the question becomes – is this terrorism? Keep an eye out for the Mason viewpoint.
ABC News – “Investigators trying to determine who sent ricin-tainted letters to President Obama and other officials quickly traced the messages and signature of the letter to Paul Kevin Curtis, an Elvis impersonator who had written to officials in the past and consistently signed his letters “I am KC and I approve this message,” according to an FBI affidavit.About 15 members of a hazmat team, some totting M4 rifles, entered Curtis’ house today and set up an evidence-gathering area outside. Curtis was formally charged today with sending mail that contained a threat to kill or harm the president and with sending mail containing a threat to injure the president.”
China is unfortunately following a storied pattern of waiting until critical information is leaked before acknowledging it openly – according to unofficial sources, as many as 40% of H7N9 cases had no contact with poultry. Exacerbating the pandemic potential of H7N9 are theunique difficulties associated with developing a vaccine to the strain – it’s proven very hard to culture in the lab. However, don’t panic just yet. Even if the virus proves capable of limited human-to-human transmission, further mutations rendering it “casual contact” transmissible would be necessary for a pandemic.
US News – “As the Chinese government openly begins to speculate about the possibility of human-to-human transmission of the H7N9 bird flu strain, an international team of experts, including some from the World Health Organization, have been deployed to investigate the disease in the country. If true, the development would quickly raise concerns of the disease outbreak leading to a pandemic. Flu experts have long warned once a particularly deadly strain of the flu, as H7N9 appears to be – it has killed 17 of the 87 people it has infected – becomes transmissible between humans, it can quickly spread.”
A four-year old in China has emerged as an asymptomatic carrier of H7N9, further complicating epidemiological efforts in the area to discover the source of the outbreak – if you don’t know who’s sick, determining how they became sick becomes very tricky. It is known that the boy’s family handled poultry and fish. Although health investigators are currently looking at “family clusters” of infection, human-to-human transmission is not suspected.
CNN – “Doctors say the discovery of a 4-year-old carrier of the H7N9 bird flu virus who shows no symptoms of the potentially lethal virus is a worrying development that could make the spread of the infection more difficult to monitor. The Beijing Municipal Health Bureau said the boy was detected from a group of close contacts of the first infection in Beijing and the laboratory results showed the boy was an asymptomatic carrier of the disease.”
The two suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing have been identified as brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, with the former killed during the night. The manhunt continues throughout Watertown for the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who has already killed an MIT police officer and hijacked a car. Residents of the Boston suburb are being ordered to remain indoors as police officers comb the area. The two suspects are believed to be of Chechen descent, but have lived in the United States for several years.
ABC News – “”The at-large suspect is considered armed and extremely dangerous. Police are going door to door in search for the second suspect.’We believe this is a terrorist, we believe this is a man that’s come here to kill people,’ Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis said.”
Up to 40 Dead in Texas Blast
While preliminary investigations at the fertilizer plant in West, Texas indicate an industrial accident, a full investigation into the source of the explosion will take six months. We’ve included it as a potential act of terrorism due to it’s proximity to Waco (less than 20 miles) and it’s occurring within two days of both the 20th anniversary of the end of the Waco, Texas siege (today) and the Boston Marathon bombing (Monday). Current numbers indicate 160 injured and at least 35 dead or missing.
Wall Street Journal – “[Mayor] Muska, who is one of more than 30 volunteer firefighters in the city, was on his way to help colleagues put out the initial fire at West Fertilizer Co. that began around 6 p.m. Central time on Wednesday night. Volunteer firefighters in the town of about 2,800 people roughly 80 miles south of Dallas tried to extinguish the fire at the industrial facility.About two hours later, a thunderous explosion ripped through the plant, registering as strong as a magnitude 2.1 earthquake, according to federal seismologists. It sent a column of smoke hundreds of feet into the air.”