While anthrax, smallpox and other "category A" bioterrorism threats dominate the collective public consciousness, a larger pool of lower-priority agents are also a danger. Q fever falls into this second tier, but the U.S. government is still sufficiently concerned to gather researchers to talk vaccine development.
The Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) has called for researchers with an interest in Q fever vaccine development to attend a webinar next month. At the webinar, DTRA will outline its interest in a vaccine for Q fever, which affected 134 people in the U.S. in 2011. The largest outbreak was linked to exposure to goats, which along with sheep are carriers of the bacteria. While the rarity of the disease--and its low virulence--mean it is currently a minor health problem, the fear is that someone will turn it into a weapon.
DTRA knows this is possible because the U.S. researched it as part of its biological weapon program. The bacteria's stability in aerosols across a range of temperatures and high-infection rate make it suitable for use as a biological weapon. In the 1970s, the Soviet Union developed a Q fever-based biological weapon, and some believed Saddam Hussein was also running a program, USA Today reports. U.S. troops fighting in Iraq reportedly returned home with the disease.
Fewer than 2% of people hospitalized with Q fever die, but the bacteria could still debilitate a country if used as a weapon. Symptoms include fever, vomiting and general malaise. If used as a weapon, the number of cases would soar, and the only vaccine--developed in Australia--is associated with multiple side effects.