Experts say the U.S. government must move quickly to protect Americans from biological-warfare attacks like the anthrax threat that has frightened the nation. But they also point out that mounting an effective bioweapons assault is not as easy as it may appear.
Washington, 24 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A physician who is an expert on bioterrorism says the U.S. needs to act swiftly and purposefully to diminish the nation's vulnerability to biological and chemical attacks.
Luciana Boria, who specializes in infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins University's Biodefense Center in the U.S. state of Maryland, told RFE/RL that the danger of more biological threats to the U.S. is "very real." As a result, she says it is critically important to "prepare rather than react" to a threat like the anthrax that has been causing concern in the country.
"The people who are causing these small directed attacks -- it has been shown that they can easily escalate them to cause more causalities. Right now, we are just at the beginning. We have a few cases that are clustered in specific geographic locations with only one death so far and a few people with cutaneous forms of anthrax. So far the system has been very efficient in investigating them and making sure people don't get sick by giving people antibiotics in a timely fashion. But if this continues to happen, it will clearly exceed our capacity to respond."
Since that statement was made, two other people have died of the disease.
But Dr. Amy Smithson, director of the chemical and biological weapons nonproliferation project at the Henry Stimson Center in Washington, spoke about panic and preventive measures.
At a recent hearing of the U.S. Congress, Smithson said faulty information has led to an unreasonable level of panic about the probability of a bioweapons attack. She explained that there are "meaningful technical hurdles" that would prevent terrorist groups from engaging in mass-casualty attacks with chemical and biological agents, and that people should not be overly concerned.
On the other hand, Boria says such a view is "naive." She says the prerequisites for an experiment or production of a bioweapon requires only two things: the raw material and the scientific knowledge to produce such an agent. She says both are "widely available" in the world, including the agents needed to produce a dangerous form of anthrax. For example, Boria says several different strains of anthrax can be found in nature or can be purchased from germ banks around the world.
She adds that the equipment used to conduct biological experiments is completely legal in most nations, and with only a few exceptions, there are no restrictions on buying this equipment.
But perhaps most important, she says, is that the scientific data and instructions needed to produce bioweapons have been in existence for many years: "We have many scientists who worked in the past in countries in the Soviet Union, the United States, England, and South Africa that had very large-scale biological-weapons development. The science hasn't been lost. In order to produce this, a person doesn't have to make a new science or reinvent science."
Boria says the U.S. is now taking important steps to fight bioterrorism, like approving other antibiotics to treat anthrax and similar diseases and spending more money at a local level to strengthen medical preparedness.
According to Boria, these measures will make the U.S. more prepared to deal with such a threat. Nonetheless, she acknowledges that part of the strategy of bioterrorism is to create fear and uncertainty. And to that extent, she says, the campaigns so far have been successful.
Binne Braunstein, a writer and teacher who lives near Washington, agrees. She told RFE/RL that although she is not an important public figure, she is still afraid of being exposed to a biological agent.
For example, she says she received a bulging letter last week without a return address and was afraid to open it. When she finally decided to take the chance, she found an invitation to an art show. But she says the entire incident unnerved her: "I don't know why anyone would want me to be a victim of bioterrorism, but in other words, I think that if people do this kind of stuff, they want to spread chaos. And that's why they do what they do: to make us look over our shoulders and stuff like that."
No matter what the aim of a biological or chemical attack, Boria says, the best way to defend the nation is to be prepared.
She says the best course of action is to work to decrease the nation's vulnerability because it is very difficult to prevent terrorists from developing or acquiring the capacity to produce and distribute biological weapons: "By that I mean having enough antibiotics, having enough vaccines, having a strong public health infrastructure, and a rapid diagnosis and surveillance containment, so that we cannot only deal with intentional cases, but natural epidemics as well. Preparation here is key to minimize the effects of bioterrorism in our nation."
Boria says that taking antibiotics or buying gas masks is neither practical nor realistic. In the case of gas masks, she says, one would have to wear the device 24 hours a day, seven days a week for it to be possibly effective.