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Experts: U.S. unprepared for bio-terrorists

US Bio-chemical Weapons April 14, 1998
Web posted at: 11:07 p.m. EDT (0307 GMT)

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- The United States is ripe for a terrorist attack using biological weapons and is nowhere near ready for it, health experts said Tuesday.

"Are we ready? Absolutely not. Should we get ready? I don't think we have a choice," said Michael Osterholm, the state epidemiologist at Minnesota's Department of Health.

"It isn't a matter of if -- it's a matter of when."

Some experts have argued that a biological attack is unlikely because it would be too hard to organize. But Osterholm said that just because biological weapons have not been used much in the past did not mean they were not a strategy for the future.

"There is a growing number of millennium cults who believe the year 2000 could be the end of the Earth and should be the end of the Earth, and are actively pursuing ways to bring that about," he told a news briefing sponsored by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.

Such weapons were easy to put together. "The bad guys already know about it," Osterholm, a top expert in the spread of diseases, said. "If you want to go on the Internet, the information is readily available."

GAO recommends formal risk assessment process

anthrax
Anthrax   

Reflecting growing concern in Congress about potential terrorist attacks involving such biological agents or chemical or nuclear arms, the General Accounting Office recommended in a report released Tuesday adoption of a formal threat and risk assessment process to enhance state and local preparedness.

The GAO, the investigative and audit arm of Congress, said Congress should consider tapping the Federal Bureau of Investigation to lead such an effort, according to a summary released by Reps. Ike Skelton, a Missouri Democrat, and Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican.

The main advantage of biological weapons is their delayed action. Osterholm said someone could leave a small box in the lobby of the World Trade Center in New York, for instance, without being noticed.

A 5 pound (2 kilogram) box could contain a million doses of smallpox virus and it could be rigged to disperse the virus quietly over a two-week period. No one would know.

He said the main threats are anthrax and smallpox, but plague, the botulin toxin that causes botulism food poisoning, ricin, and Q fever, caused by Rickettsia microbes that act like both bacteria and viruses, could all be used as weapons.

Experts have frequently accused extremist groups of testing anthrax as a weapon. The disease, normally animal-borne, can be fatal in humans.

Osterholm described a World Health Organization (WHO) scenario in which 100 pounds (50 kg) of anthrax would be dispersed just over a mile (2 km) upwind from downtown Washington, D.C., a city of 500,000 people. "In a short time you would kill or incapacitate 220,000 persons," he said.

This would overwhelm hospitals and emergency response teams. There are vaccines and antibiotics against anthrax, but they would be no good once someone showed the symptoms.

"I can't imagine trying to get 500,000 people in and telling them we have to give them three vaccinations in 30 days and give them antibiotics for 30 days," Osterholm said.

Federal response teams poorly prepared, experts say

He said an attack on Minnesota's Mall of America, visited by people from all over the world, could infect 350,000 people in a single day.

Dr. Richard Duma, an infectious disease expert at Halifax Medical Canter in Daytona Beach, Florida, agreed. "There should be a plan for all these diseases and how they should be handled, rather than burying our heads in the sand."

Osterholm and Duma said federal response teams, though ready for a bomb attack or natural disaster, were poorly prepared for a medical emergency.

The warnings have not fallen on deaf ears. In his State of the Union address in late January, Clinton said it was important to prevent biological warfare or terrorism by strengthening an international convention against biological weapons with inspections to detect and deter cheating.

Last month defense officials said National Guard rapid-response teams would be set up later this year, to be stationed in 10 geographical areas designated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

And the Pentagon is involved in a federal government effort to train first-response teams to deal with chemical, biological or other such emergencies in 120 of the largest U.S. cities.

But Osterholm said the plan focused on cities, neglecting larger metropolitan areas such as Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Copyright 1998 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.

 
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