US Confronts Bioterror Threat

Published October 9th, 2001 - 02:00 GMT

As the dust settles from the September 11 attacks in Washington and New York, the death of a Florida man from anthrax has US policy makers scrambling for ways to counter bioterrorists. 


Although the verdict is not yet in on the cause of the Florida death, terrorism has not been ruled out, and disease researchers who deal with the government are speaking of a new urgency, according to an AP report this week. “We suddenly realize, my God, we've got to deal with this," Dr. Myron Levine, director of the University of Maryland's Center for Vaccine Development, told the agency.  


The words anthrax, smallpox, and plague are the first on the lips of US leaders and scientists concerned with bioterrorism, according to an online report this week by WebMD that catalogues the difficulties of using each of the diseases to wage war. 


Anthrax, according to the report, is actually an unwieldy weapon because it cannot be delivered to large populations except in a hard-to-obtain powdered form perfected by Soviet scientists. Moreover, scientists believe they may have developed new antidotes for anthrax cases, which are actually treatable in the early stages. 


"These findings have got us pretty excited about the possibility we may actually make a significant contribution to therapy or prevention of anthrax," Harvard microbiologist R. John Collier told WebMD this week. "We are pursuing [anti-anthrax] compounds on the assumption that it would be a good idea - if they prove effective - to have them stockpiled at major centers around the country. There is greatly increased interest since September 11. I think the government now is going to throw money at this." 


Smallpox, says WebMD, is “so awful and so easily spread that the threat is taken very seriously.” Unlike anthrax, smallpox spreads easily from person to person, according to a Boston Globe report this week, and unlike other potential bioweapons, there is no cure.  


The United States and Russia have the only remaining official supplies of smallpox, which was eradicated in 1977. Both stocks are heavily guarded, says the Globe, adding that many analysts “suspect that other governments still have stocks, but would be unlikely to share them willingly with terrorists - if only because an outbreak could easily backfire and devastate their own populations.” 


Anthrax and smallpox top the lists of biowarfare analysts, says the Globe, but there is not enough vaccine for either available for the US public, which must stand in line behind the military for limited supplies. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said last week the government hoped to have 40 million fresh doses of smallpox vaccine by next summer, according to AP. 


Plague, meanwhile, seems to trail anthrax and smallpox on scientists’ list of worries. WebMD calls plague germs “far easier…for terrorists to get their hands on,” but ones that are “yielding [their] secrets.” Scientists recently announced that they now had a genetic map of the germ that caused the Black Death in the Middle Ages, says the online report, adding that the new information should soon lead to new treatments and vaccines.  




In the weeks and months to come, defending the US against bioterror could, ironically, involve investing in public health services that the government has long been reluctant to spend money on. 


Many doubt that population-wide vaccinations will provide a practical defense against deadly microbes, according to AP. The agency cites experts as saying that the possible health hazards of mass vaccination could easily outweigh the benefits, and that although about half of Americans alive today were vaccinated against smallpox, the protection has largely worn off. 


In the short run, then, many bioterrorism experts say the most effective line of defense is to improve the public health system. WebMD cites three important improvements: building the capacity of hospitals to handle many new patients; training healthcare workers to recognize the subtle symptoms of bioterror diseases; and accelerating the speed at which laboratories can identify the type of germ infecting a patient. 


In a sign that such warnings are taking hold, reported this week that Senators Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Bill Frist, R-Tenn., were pushing to allocate $1.4 billion for "immediate" bioterrorism efforts, including a $625 million provision for state and local health agencies. 


This kind of investment at the grassroots level and up is called necessary to ensure that the first trickle of bioterrorism victims are quickly diagnosed, to trigger full-scale medical and security responses from higher authorities. 


''The hardest part is getting the primary-care physician to notice the first case,'' Michael Shannon, the associate chief of emergency medicine at Children's Hospital and a member of the Greater Boston Biodefense Collaborative, told the Globe. 


''Noticing early can reduce the number of deaths, sometimes by an order of magnitude,'' said Shannon, who according to the Globe is helping design an easy-to-use Web site to give doctors information on the symptoms of biological attack - 


© 2001 Al Bawaba (

© 2000 - 2021 Al Bawaba (

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