OSU Offers First Undergraduate Bioterror Course

Undergraduate students at Ohio State are among the first in the nation to receive classroom instruction on bioterrorism. The new course examines possible threats to public health, plants and animals.WOSU’s Sam Hendren has this report.

“Bioterrorism is the real deal. It’s significant and we need to worry about it,” says OSU’s Todd Stewart.

During the first session of the new course Tuesday morning, about 30 students heard an overview on bioterror from retired Air Force major general Todd Stewart, director of OSU’s Program for International and Homeland Security.

“So you’ve got to worry about bad guys and bad stuff. Each of those independently is worrisome for us as a nation. But you know what’s really worrisome? If the bad guys get their hands on the bad stuff. And, believe me; they are trying to do that,” said General Stewart.

The undergraduate course is the first of its kind at Ohio State. It was proposed by OSU’s International Studies Program to help train students in the Intelligence and Security major. Students Melissa Castillo and Zephan Keehner both hope the class helps them go to work with the federal government after graduation.

“Knowing this information will benefit me, my family my friends to be prepared for what’s going on in the future and also to know something when going into a government position which is something I want to do,” says Castillo.

There’s some pretty scary stuff in the world and I figured, Hey the best thing to do is to learn about it,’” Keehner says.

The U.S. has already seen the impact of bioterror. The anthrax attacks that occurred on the heals of 9/11 infected more than 20 people and killed five. Small pox and other diseases also could one day be used as weapons. Though chemical and nuclear weapons might be favored by terrorists because of their immediate impact, OSU plant pathologist Charles Curtis, who helped develop the course, says a bioterror attack could be accomplished more easily.

“It’s cheaper to do it this way. And it doesn’t require much and one person can do a lot of damage. Putting something in the water supply or putting toxins around – if they really wanted to do it, they could get their hands on it. So it’s called an asymmetric war – of aircraft carriers versus anthrax spores in a 35 cent letter. So it’s a new era for us,” Curtis says.

This new era includes threats to the food supply: plant pathogens could attack crops and diseases like foot-and-mouth could disrupt livestock production. To teach the wide-ranging course material, scholars from across the university will take part. They include professors from Public Health, Plant Pathology, International Studies and the Food Animal Health Research Program. Guest lecturers include a former deputy assistant to the defense secretary for chemical and biological defense. Charles Curtis says that among the general population there’s a lack of awareness about the potential biological threats that exis.

“The idea is not to scare students to death, but to have them aware — this is an awareness course — to provide them with what they need to know and fully understand our modern situation,” Curtis says.

Curtis says bioterrorism is not a new idea. The Assyrians, he says, waged it against adversaries in 500 B.C. Just three decades ago, a small Chicago-based ecoterror group calling itself R.I.S.E declared that humans were destroying the planet and planned an ill-conceived annihilation. Couple today’s ready access to information with the United State’s open society and preparedness, according to Curtis is now vitally important.

“Those kinds of situations need to be studied and dealt with. Our adversaries are not ignorant about these facts. They’re quite sophisticated. They do projections on what could happen and they study the situation very carefully. All the information they need is available in our libraries and our research publications,” Curtis says.

The course will also examine the balance between risk and civil liberties. One session will feature a panel of EMS, police and fire first responders. Students will also study the strengths and weaknesses in crisis communication. Sam Hendren, WOSU News.