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Bio-attacks compared to hydrogen bomb

By TONY LEYS Register Staff Writer 04/21/2001 -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Terrorists armed with viruses could kill many more people than Timothy McVeigh managed to murder with his truck bomb in Oklahoma City, a prominent author warns.

Richard Preston, who is scheduled to speak in Des Moines today, said the smallpox virus poses the worst threat. His research shows Iraq, North Korea and several other potential U.S. enemies have developed smallpox weapons or are close to finishing them.

Terrorists could quickly infect millions of people by exposing just a handful of New York City residents to smallpox, he said. "This clearly is a virus that could threaten our society in the same way the hydrogen bomb could," Preston said.

Preston has written two scientific best-sellers: "The Hot Zone," about the Ebola virus, and "The Cobra Event," about biological terrorism. He is the featured speaker at the Iowa Medical Society's annual meeting.

The author will urge physicians to educate themselves about the danger. "Medical doctors will be the people on the front line if there is a bioterrorism event, and they are singularly unprepared for it," Preston said.

He said they could start by learning the symptoms of rare diseases that could be introduced by terrorists. That way, they could quickly alert law-enforcement authorities.

Amateur terrorists such as McVeigh probably couldn't develop smallpox weapons, Preston said, but they could kill thousands of people by releasing a few pounds of dried anthrax spores into the air. Instructions are available on the Internet. "If you know how to make beer, you could make anthrax," Preston warned.

He said the U.S. government has been slow to produce vaccines and make other preparations for a biological attack. Instead, national leaders are set to spend billions of dollars on a space-based defense against nuclear missiles, Preston noted. "Maybe we're scared of the wrong thing," he said.

-- Martin Thompson (, April 22, 2001


US on alert for smallpox terror attack

By Jeremy Laurence, health editor 22 April 2001 The US government has ordered 40 million doses of smallpox vaccine from a British company in a sign of the growing alarm that terrorists could unleash lethal viruses in future battles against Western states.

The astonishing size of the contract worth $343m (200m) highlights the fears on both sides of the Atlantic about the threat of biological terrorism. If a virus such as smallpox was released, the speed of modern communications could spread the infection all over the world in days.

In the UK, the health department warned all NHS hospitals last year to prepare for a criminal or terrorist attack on their local populations involving biological weapons. Police teams trained by scientists from Porton Down, the government research centre on biological and chemical warfare, have been formed to take the lead role in the event of an attack.

The British Medical Association said that advances in technology meant biological weapons were now easier to manufacture than chemical ones, increasing the risk that they could be used in an attack.

Over the past 40 years there have been 121 incidents around the world involving the use of biological agents. The use of sarin nerve gas in an attack by a Japanese terrorist organisation six years ago, in which 12 people were killed and 5,000 injured, focused world attention on the threat. The US last year set aside $1.4bn (940m) for protection against chemical or biological attacks.

The latest contract for smallpox vaccine is against a disease that no longer exists and the world must hope it will never encounter again. It was eradicated from the planet in 1980 and only two research institutions one in the US and one in Russia still retain stocks of the virus.

The threat of a smallpox attack is highlighted in the preview edition of Infectious Diseases, a new journal published by The Lancet. Donald Henderson of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health said: "A large stockpile of vaccine is a very high priority because smallpox has a 30 per cent fatality rate. There is no vaccine production capacity anywhere in the world and we now have a very susceptible population."

The vaccine ordered by the US government is being manufactured by a US subsidiary of the Cambridge-based UK biotechnology company Acambis, formerly known as Peptide Therapeutics. Delivery to the US government's Center for Disease Control in Atlanta is due to start from mid-2004.

A spokeswoman said: "At the moment we are going through the process of developing and licensing the vaccine, but under the contract we have the right to sell it to anyone who wants it. When the time comes we will be marketing it to other governments, including the UK. It certainly would be a logical step for them to take."

The likelihood of a chemical or biological attack in the UK is seen as low by the Department of Health, but the results could be devastating. Working parties have been set up to consider the threat and exercises have been run in parts of the country. Lists of the most likely agents to be used have been drawn up, together with advice on how many people they might kill or injure, and strategies for treating the victims.

In the US, fear of biological terrorism has become as unnerving as the threat itself. President Clinton's declaration in 1998 that he expected a biological or chemical attack within the next five years has fuelled alarm and provided fertile ground for hoaxers

-- Martin Thompson (, April 22, 2001.

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