US and UK intelligence agencies have said that Islamic State has been trying to develop biological weapons at its bases in Syria and Iraq. However, they have played down the threat, saying that the terrorists would need people with the necessary skills, good laboratories and a relatively calm environment free from the confusion and chaos of conflict zones.
Yet other security specialists say the threat from bio-terrorism has become more realistic over the past decade, particularly the past five years, with changes in molecular biology that make development of biological weapons more accessible.
Gates, making his first appearance at the Munich security conference on Saturday, said: “Whether it occurs by a quirk of nature or at the hand of a terrorist, epidemiologists say a fast-moving airborne pathogen could kill more than 30 million people in less than a year. And they say there is a reasonable probability the world will experience such an outbreak in the next 10 to 15 years.”
He added: “It’s hard to get your mind around a catastrophe of that scale, but it happened not that long ago. In 1918, a particularly virulent and deadly strain of flu killed between 50 million and 100 million people.