Bioterrorism -- Are We Ready?

Scientists, journalists and policy makers are engaged in a heated debate over the threat of terrorists using disease-causing agents. It has its own name now -- bioterrorism.The debate involves the degree of danger, not whether some such action could occur. Everybody involved grants that it could. Germs are not that hard to obtain, and some ghastly variation on what happened at the World Trade Center or Oklahoma City or the Littleton high school -- using germs used instead of guns and bombs, slow-spreading disease instead of sudden bloody violence -- is certainly conceivable.The chemical attacks on the Tokyo subways in 1995 by the Aum Shinrikyo sect clearly demonstrated that terrorist groups need not limit themselves to things that make loud noises. We even have one documented domestic case of bioterrorism, when a religious cult in Oregon poisoned salad bars, causing 750 cases of salmonella.Among those calling for increased preparedness is Donald A. Henderson, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense. In a recent article in Science magazine he called for increased public support for a variety of programs, including special training for emergency-room doctors and nurses on how to handle massive numbers of patients infected by anthrax, smallpox, or botulism toxin. As for funds needed to establish such programs, he argues that "one billion dollars is not an egregious amount."Others say that is an egregious amount. At a recent conference on bioterrorism hosted by the Johns Hopkins Center, Mark Wheelis, a microbiologist and biological warfare specialist at the University of California, Davis, said, "I think we shouldn't panic and we shouldn't waste huge amounts of money trying to prepare for an impossible scenario." He believes that bioweapons are not actually that available or easy to use, and cites reports that Aum Shinrikyo tried using biological weapons on ten occasions before giving up on them and turning to nerve gas. Washington Post science writer Daniel S. Greenberg put it in stronger terms: "There is a whiff of hysteria and budget opportunism in the scary scenarios of the saviors who have stepped forward against the menace of bioterrorism."At present, it looks like the better-safe-than-sorry forces are winning the argument. President Clinton has asked Congress for money targeted for safety measures to guard against chemical and biological attacks as part of a large anti-terrorism package. Last month, a Congressional hearing on the subject was enlivened -- if that's the word -- when one of the invited experts, William C. Patrick III, showed up brandishing a bottle containing seven and a half grams of powdered anthrax as tangible evidence of how easy it might be to smuggle bioweapons into federal installations. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson has announced that his department is developing various devices to detect the presence of biological devices, and hopes to have them available for use in subway systems and sports arenas in the next few years -- possibly at the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.The bioterrorism threat was a factor in President Clinton's recent decision to postpone destroying the last sample of smallpox virus. This issue, also the subject of fierce debate, is likely to become even more controversial. Some bioterrorism experts -- such as Dr. Henderson -- are in favor of destroying the virus as a step toward eliminating smallpox from the world entirely. Others fear that destroying it might lessen U.S. ability to do further research aimed at developing anti-viral agents and vaccines to be used against a military or terrorist smallpox attack. (Officially, the only other remaining smallpox virus are kept in a government research institute in Russia -- but recent intelligence reports have indicated that North Korea may have its own stockpile, possibly for use in biological warfare.)Making this whole matter even more worrisome is a new book entitled "Biohazard" co-authored by an American journalist and a former Soviet germ warfare scientist, Kanatjan Alibekov, now known as Ken Alibek. It details, among other things, major epidemics of hermorrhagic fever in China caused by an accident at a biological weapons plant, and highly successful Soviet programs aimed at developing new forms of diseases resistant to antibiotics. Alibek claims that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was authorizing a vast expansion of biological warfare research at the same time that he was pursuing new peace initiatives with the West.All this indicates that there are a lot of nasty germs and viruses, biological weapons and lethal expertise floating around in the world, and that there is a real danger that they may be used either in warfare or terrorism. It looks like yet another thing to worry about -- the only uncertainty is how much. Walter Truett Anderson, author of "Evolution Isn't What It Used To Be" (W.H. Freeman), is a political scientist who writes widely on technology and global governance.

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