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Bioterrorism attack would be difficult, but science, hatred exist to do it

TERRORISM: Newspaper reports satellite photos show dead animals at bin Laden training camp.

The Associated Press AP PHOTO THE UNTHINKABLE: This undated handout picture released by Britain's Ministry of Defense Feb. 13, 1998, shows chemical-biological warfare agent R400 aerial bombs destroyed in Iraq by U.N. inspectors after the Gulf War. Experts say such weapons in the hands of terrorists could result in even more casualties than the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.


As devastating as Tuesday's terrorist attacks were, national security and public health experts know this much:

Something even worse could happen. There are weapons that are invisible and next-to-impossible to trace. A whiff of nerve gas. A droplet of anthrax. A particle of smallpox.

Infectious or toxic weapons in skilled hands could cause considerably more casualties among ordinary Americans than the estimated 5,000 dead and missing at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The use of biological or chemical weapons -- described by some as the poor man's atomic bomb -- is a sensitive topic, especially now.

Experts caution that a bioterrorism attack here is not inevitable. Their opinions are the products of war games rather than an immediate and real threat.

And there are those who say that few terrorists could pull this off, that this would be a much more complicated and difficult feat than it may seem.

But the science exists to launch such an attack and, obviously, so does the hatred. President Clinton said as much as early as 1999 when he said a biological or chemical attack on the United States is "highly likely."

Seattle thought so, too. Before the World Trade Organization meeting there, hospitals stockpiled antidotes, just in case.

A commander of Afghanistan's Taliban told The Associated Press last year that Osama bin Laden -- described by administration officials as the prime suspect in Tuesday's attacks -- was training his fighters in the use of chemical weapons. The New York Times reported Sunday that satellite photos show dead animals at a terrorist training camp in eastern Afghanistan operated by bin Laden.

Chemical weapons might have an extraordinary effect, wiping out masses of people, all at once. But the deadly effects likely would not spread beyond the people who came in direct contact with the nerve gas or other poisonous agent.

Top 6 microbes for bioterrorism Authorities identify six microbes that could be turned into fearsome weapons:

Smallpox tops the chilling list. Tens of millions of infectious virus particles can fit into an aerosol can.

A close second is anthrax, a spore-forming bacterium often carried by livestock that is especially virulent if inhaled.

Also worrisome are bubonic plague, ebola, botulism and tularemia.

They can be unstable and difficult to "weaponize," although the biotech revolution in medicine may change that.

In contrast, the scope of an attack using certain biological weapons in an airport or a domed stadium would not be apparent for days or weeks until victims showed symptoms of a mysterious illness.

By then, they could have infected many others around the world. Waves of patients might overwhelm hospitals.

The public, panicked, might turn on their neighbors unless adequate medicines and vaccines were available.

Which, the experts warn, they are not.

"The biological threat is one we are not adequately prepared for," said Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a Washington, D.C., think tank. Hamburg was New York City health commissioner during the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

"This is a critical moment to assess where we are vulnerable," she said. "The biological threat has to be very, very high on the priority list."

Others share Hamburg's concern. "I'm very, very alarmed," said Donald A. Henderson, a biodefense expert at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and adviser to former President Bush.

Skeptics said Tuesday's events, while horrific, don't mean that a bioattack is on the horizon. Most terrorists, they said, don't have the expertise.

"We need to be realistic in our threat assessments," said Jonathan B. Tucker, a nonproliferation expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Washington, D.C. "A worst-case scenario is unlikely."

Fighting with disease was prohibited by a 1972 treaty signed by 143 nations, but biological weapons have, on occasion, been used in the past. In the Middle Ages, sieges were broken by catapulting corpses over castle walls to spread poxes and plagues. In the western United States, American Indians were given the blankets of smallpox victims.

During the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein was accused of using chemical weapons against Iraq's Kurdish minority. He was believed to have possessed biological and chemical weapons, and the CIA says he is pursuing them again.

The United States and the former Soviet Union built vast germ warfare stockpiles. In July, the Bush administration pulled out of negotiations to further enforce the biological weapons ban.

Subsequent reports suggest both nations still investigate new bioweapons, including an enhanced form of anthrax, to understand how they might work. Experts speculate that hardships might prompt some Russian scientists to sell their know-how on the black market. In addition to Iraq, Iran and Libya have reportedly pursued germ warfare

-- Martin Thompson (, September 17, 2001


Maybe the terrorists don't have the expertise, but Saddam's people do. I still say terrorism won't end until we take this mad man out.

-- Uncle Fred (, September 17, 2001.

Biological attack threat real, but small By David Ensor CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- While U.S. officials say they have more evidence would-be terrorists remain in the United States and could be plotting more bombings, there is growing concern they may be trying to acquire biological weapons.

Many experts believe the United States is not fully prepared to deal with such an assault.

Experts say the most likely biological killer which terrorists might use is anthrax. Only 1 billionth of a gram -- the size of a speck of dust -- is lethal.

Agents made from anthrax first produce fever and stomach pains. A horrible death can occur within 24 to 36 hours of the onset of severe symptoms.

"It is spread -- let's say in a biological terrorism event -- it would go by aerosol. You dry it and spread it as a spray and let it drift over a long way," said D. A. Henderson, the director of the Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

Still more terrifying, although much harder for terrorists to get their hands on, is the smallpox virus, a disease declared eradicated worldwide in 1980.

"To be able to move smallpox simply means to have a device within a writing ink pen that could very easily pass any customs officer, could easily pass through a metal detector, and you could have enough smallpox in there to start the world's worst epidemic," said Michael Osterholm, the director of the Minnesota Center for Infectious Disease.

Smallpox spreads like wildfire. It is estimated to have killed a 120 million people in the 20th century.

Had smallpox not been eradicated, according to the World Health Organization, the past 20 years would have witnessed some 350 million new victims -- roughly the combined population of the United States and Mexico -- and an estimated 40 million deaths -- a figure equal to the entire population of Spain or South Africa.

It can be difficult to tell the difference between smallpox and chickenpox in the first few days of the disease, when it is most infectious.

The only official stocks of the smallpox virus are in one laboratory in the United States and in one lab in Russia. But there may be others.

"There is a circumstantial evidence that Iraq, North Korea and Russia have undeclared stocks of smallpox," said Jonathan Tucker, author of a new book titled "Scourge: The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox."

During the Cold War, sources say the Soviet Union developed smallpox and anthrax weapons that could be lobbed into the United States on intercontinental missiles.

The Russians insist they only have biological agents for vaccine research. A defector said that is not true and that the weapons could end up in the wrong hands.

"In my opinion, it's a clear and present danger," said former Soviet weapons expert Ken Alibek.

"At this point, we're woefully short in vaccines and antibiotics," Osterholm told Reuters. "The [U.S.] public health infrastructure is but a shell of what it needs to be able to respond. And public health has continued to be overlooked in most of the kinds of funding that have occurred to date, in terms of trying to prepare us for terrorism."

Still, barring leakage from Russia, or help from, say, Iraq, Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network would have difficulty getting their hands on a biological weapon.

"We should improve our intelligence about what terrorists are doing in this area, but we shouldn't panic," said Tucker. "I think the threat is quite small."

The threat is small because biological agents are so hard to produce and hard to make into weapons.

By contrast, the threat of a chemical attack may be greater. But the United States is relatively well prepared against such an event.

As the sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway showed six years ago, chemical agents can affect only a limited area.

If U.S. troops were to head into Afghanistan, though, going after bin Laden and his group, experts say the troops would need chemical protection.

According to newspaper reports, satellite pictures of terrorist training camps outside Jalalabad in Afghanistan show dead animals on test ranges, which suggests militants there may have been experimenting with various poisons. clickMap=printThis&fb=Y&url=http% 3A// 20September%2018%2C% 202001&random=0.38628385274237453&partnerID=2001&expire=-1

-- Martin Thompson (, September 18, 2001.

Big fear is biowarfare attack

Will Dunham

Tuesday, September 18, 2001 at 09:30 JST WASHINGTON The first sign of trouble might be rather mild people showing up at doctors' offices or hospital emergency rooms with runny noses, teary eyes, headaches and fevers.

Only the sheer number of these patients, not the severity of the initial symptoms, might suggest that something unusual is afoot.

But the progression of these flulike symptoms over a period of days into worse problems, such as bleeding, internal and external lesions, and labored breathing, might provide the first proof of the unspeakable: an attack on a civilian population with biological weapons. In such an event, untold thousands of people could suffer agonizing deaths.

That scenario was offered by experts on Monday amid mounting concern after the Sept 11 attacks on New York and Washington that the United States is poorly prepared to deal with an attack involving disease- causing micro-organisms or lethal chemicals.

"In a worst-case scenario, a biological attack could be considered the most horrible of all in terms of a hostile effort against a population," said Leonard Cole of Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, whose books on biological and chemical warfare issues include "The 11th Plague: The Politics of Biological and Chemical Warfare."

"And that's because, at least theoretically, every person who becomes infected, if it is with a certain kind of micro-organism, himself becomes a biological weapon who can infect others, and you get kind of a domino effect," Cole said.

America is unprepared to handle an attack with a biological weapon harnessing deadly viruses and bacteria or a chemical weapon that ravages the human nervous system, experts said.

For example, the people who may be the first to respond to a biological weapon attack the primary-care physicians have not been included in any meaningful way in planning efforts, said Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.

"At this point, we're woefully short in vaccines and antibiotics. The public health infrastructure is but a shell of what it needs to be able to respond. And public health has continued to be overlooked in most of the kinds of funding that have occurred to date in terms of trying to prepare us for terrorism," Osterholm said.

The nightmare scenario for government officials planning responses to unconventional domestic attacks is the introduction of a biological agent such as anthrax, smallpox or a small list of diseases into a densely populated area, perhaps by dumping a mist or powder over a city from a low-flying, slow-moving, small airplane.

Frank Cilluffo of the Center for Strategic and International Studies called biological weapons "silent killers" because it could take days or weeks for symptoms to manifest themselves. An attack could remain unknown for some time unless the perpetrators announced it.

Because no one would know what had happened, many people who had been exposed say, to an infectious disease such as smallpox might unwittingly spread the virus to many more victims who had initially been spared.

Experts believe the two most likely biological agents would be anthrax a deadly bacterial disease spread by spores and generally confined to sheep, cattle, horses, goats and pigs and smallpox a viral scourge that killed millions of people throughout the centuries until it was declared eradicated worldwide two decades ago.

Anthrax kills about 90% of those it infects but is not spread from person to person. Smallpox kills only about 30% of those it infects but is alarmingly infectious.

The two most likely chemical agents, experts said, would be nerve gases such as sarin or VX, which short-circuit the nervous system, and mustard gas, which causes deadly internal and external blistering.

"A well-placed and effective chemical agent could clearly (cause) thousands of deaths," Osterholm said. "A well-placed and effective biological agent could (cause) hundreds of thousands of deaths."

Various government reports document failings in official preparations for domestic attacks with biological or chemical weapons. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the agency that would be in charge of nailing down the nature of a germ outbreak in the hours and days after an attack, concedes that the public health system right now is unable to detect and respond to a biological attack.

Congressional investigators have reported in the past two years that "the U.S. ability to effectively respond to chemical or biological terrorist incidents is compromised by poor management controls and the lack of required items," such as good vaccines and medical supplies.

One report found that government stockpiles included expired medicines. Another found that supplies were being stored at too high a temperature.

"We're unprepared. I'm not going to lie and say that we would handle it well," said Cilluffo of the Strategic and International Studies think tank. (Reuters News

-- Martin Thompson (, September 18, 2001.

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