Japan prepares for bioterrorism

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Govt prepares for bioterrorism

Yomiuri Shimbun

After three people in the United States tested positive for anthrax and one of them died, the government is tightening security measures against possible bioterrorist attacks.

The Defense Agency urgently decided to purchase antibiotics to be used in the event of an outbreak of anthrax in Japan, an agency official said Thursday.

In addition, the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry as well as the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry have ordered tighter security at their administrative facilities.

Meanwhile, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry has decided to have enough smallpox vaccine manufactured to immunize 3 million people.


Defense Agency taking precautions

Aside from purchasing antibiotics to prevent anthrax, the Defense Agency has also decided to begin developing protective clothing and detection equipment to be used in the event of a bioterrorist attack.

The agency will ask the government to include some of the 2.7 billion yen it had requested for next fiscal year's budget in the supplementary budget for the current fiscal year.

On Thursday, it also instructed about 1,200 medical officers working in 16 Self-Defense Force hospitals and other facilities across the country to immediately inform the agency if they detect symptoms of infectious disease in patients.

In March, the agency established the Military Medicine Research Unit, part of the Ground SDF, to formulate comprehensive measures to fight bioterrorism.

However, the project saw little progress as it lacked sufficient research facilities and was poorly coordinated with the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, the National Institute of Infectious Disease and other institutions specializing in infectious diseases. In addition, the agency has never examined the possibility of conducting joint drills with medical institutions so as not to simulate a response to an attack by biological weapons.

The U.S. government has a facility inside an army site in Maryland that is capable of dealing with bacteria and viruses related to infectious diseases. It has also set up research centers to study infectious disease and develop protective gear.

The return of smallpox?

Smallpox was eradicated nationwide in 1955, and worldwide after the last patient was reported in Somalia in 1977.

Despite plans by the United States and Russia to dispose of their stocks of smallpox virus in 1999, both countries still possess stockpiles, which would be used to produce vaccines in the case of a bioterrorist attack.

The Japanese government currently stockpiles enough of the smallpox vaccine for 1.3 million people, which has been in storage since 1976, when vaccination programs ceased. However, the vaccine's effectiveness has expired.

The government decided it was more urgent to prepare for an outbreak of smallpox, since it is spread from person to person, while anthrax is spread through zoonosis. Also, although antibiotics are effective against anthrax in its early stages, most people are not immune to smallpox.

Stockpiles to be watched closely

The government has begun asking public organizations about how bacteria and viruses that can cause infectious diseases are stored.

The Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry decided Thursday to ask internal organizations how bacteria and viruses that could be used for bioterrorist attacks are stored and controlled, in an effort to insure their security. Such institutions include the National Institute of Agrobiological Resources, the National Agricultural Experiment Station, the National Research Institute of Agricultural Engineering and the Institute for Agro-Microbiology.

The ministry said information on specific facilities dealing with dangerous bacteria and viruses cannot be disclosed due to security reasons.

The Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry has set up a headquarters to manage and control bacteria and viruses in institutions it controls.

It will ask its public research centers whether they possess anthrax, brucellosis and Q fever bacteria, which can be used as biological weapons, and will instruct them to store them safely if they do.

The Education, Science and Technology Ministry will make a list of more than 50 infectious diseases, such as anthrax, smallpox and the plague. It also plans to survey more than 1,000 universities, junior colleges and research laboratories nationwide to determine what types of bacteria they possess.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), October 13, 2001

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