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September 25, 2003

Bioterrorism: ‘Greatest security threat’

Echoing an opinion voiced years ago by Secretary of State Colin Powell, Center for Biosecurity CEO Tara O’Toole called bioterrorism “the greatest security threat confronting the United States, and the world, in the 21st century” — and one for which there is no military solution.

The anthrax letter attacks of 2001 were a mere wake-up call, she said. “The real threat is the prospect of an overt attack causing a world-wide epidemic that could not only kill and sicken hundreds of thousands or even millions of people, but also cause devastating economic destruction and even threaten democratic processes and civil rights.”

She cited World Bank estimates that SARS, which public health investigators believe was a naturally occurring epidemic, cost the South East Asian economy $25 billion and Toronto $1 billion in lost income.

Man-made epidemics could be at least as costly, O’Toole said, adding that the bioterrorism threat will grow as scientists learn more about manipulating biological mechanisms.

But in contrast to a nuclear attack, biological warfare can be countered with good preparation, she said. “If you’re ready for an epidemic, if you have the systems in place to respond, to identify who’s sick, to get the medicines and vaccines in time, to figure out who’s at risk, you can really make an enormous difference.”

D.A. Henderson, the Center for Biosecurity’s senior adviser, cautioned against dismissing the threat posed by terrorists armed with cheap, widely available bioweapons just because U.S. and British forces have failed to find such weapons in Iraq.

Following the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, he noted, at least half of the scientists employed in that country’s enormous bioweapons program scattered throughout the world; many found work in countries with anti-Western governments.

According to Henderson, biodefense measures during the late 1990s were naively based on the model of a chemical weapons attack, with clearly defined contamination sites and easy-to-identify victims. Police, firefighters and emergency personnel were seen as “first responders.”

But bioterrorism actually is deadlier and harder to detect, Henderson pointed out: A terrorist could leave an aerosol-equipped briefcase full of anthrax or other infectious agents in a crowded room and, within minutes, saturate that room with odorless, invisible, deadly microorganisms.

“It’s not that complicated,” he said. “You would see, smell and feel nothing — until people became sick.”
In biological warfare, the real first responders are physicians, public health officials and personnel in emergency rooms and intensive care units, Henderson argued.

Government alone cannot defend America against bioweapons attacks, he and O’Toole agreed. “The critical building blocks of biodefense are hospitals, health care systems, HMOs and public health systems,” O’Toole said — but except for a few places such as UPMC, those entities “are not in good shape right now.”

That includes Johns Hopkins, according to Henderson. “Hopkins at this point is doing nothing with the [Maryland] state health department,” he told the University Times.

“They’ve been doing very little with the city of Baltimore. The hospitals made efforts to try and get organized but they just really haven’t taken the [bioterrorism] threat seriously. We’ve told them, and they were unhappy when we said it: ‘You don’t realize how far behind you really are.’”

— Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 36 Issue 3

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