The Intentional Use of Microorganisms or Toxins to Produce Death or Disease

Bioterrorism: Can We Deal with It?
by Claude Salhani

Source: United Press International UPI

December 2, 2000

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (UPI) -- No one gave much thought to the outdated and archaic voting system being used in Florida (and several other states) until it was too late. Much like the presidential elections, the same can be said about potential bioterrorism threats and how the country could cope with such a problem.

"It takes a crisis for people to react," said Larry Grossman, former president of NBC news. Grossman was addressing a workshop on bioterrorism and the media organized by the Atlanta’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Florida’s Pinellas County board of supervisors and the University of Southern Florida.

"The time to prepare is now," added Grossman. An excellent statement. Yet, not many people would know where to start, or exactly what bioterrorism involves.

Biological terrorism is the intentional use of microorganisms or toxins derived from living organisms to produce death or disease in humans, animals or plants.

Biological agents as weapons of mass destruction are becoming more of a possibility than many of us care to realize.

They are often called the "poor man’s weapon," because of their low price when compared to other weapons of mass destruction.

Consider these figures provided to the United Nations by an expert panel in 1969: A large-scale operation against a civilian population using conventional weapons might cost $2,000 per square kilometer, $800 with nerve gas and only $1 with biological agents. One dollar! Granted, these prices are outdated by some 30 years, but still, you get the drift.

Furthermore, biological weapons such as anthrax, for example, have a far greater "kill" capacity. A 1970 study by the World Heath Organization shows that the effect of a "hypothetical dissemination by aircraft of 50kg of anthrax along a 2km line, upwind of a population center of 500,000 would kill 95,000 and incapacitate 125,000."

Those are astounding figures.

The big question now is that, if and when that threat materializes, will we, as a nation, be ready to deal with it?

At an Oct.19 hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee investigating the recent terrorist attack on the USS Cole, here is what retired Marine general and former Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Central Command Anthony Zinni had to say: "We will eventually see a weapon of mass destruction used in a terrorist act. And, I would say we had better start thinking about how we’re going to be prepared for the threat, because we’re woefully unprepared for that event, and that’s inevitable."

This was precisely the issue being discussed in Florida Thursday and Friday by dozens of federal, state and county officials, scientists, scholars and media representatives.

After two days of deliberations, there was still no clear or concise answer, other than "the need to prevent panic."

"Biological warfare may not seem an immediate threat to many Americans, but, in fact, the risk of this sort of human destruction is real," said Faith Fitzgerald, a professor of medicine at the University of California-Davis School of Medicine.

Fitzgerald spoke on biological warfare and its consequences during a recent lecture sponsored by the Brown University School of Medicine chapter of the Alpha Omega Honor Medical Society.

"The effects of biological warfare don’t have to be intentional," she added. "In 1979, in Sverdlosvsk, Russia, there was an epidemic in which 66 Russians died from the inhalation of anthrax."

The United States has had its fair share of homegrown terrorism. "As long as there are people out there who are crazy ... we will have to be concerned about this," Fitzgerald said.

She listed 23 viruses which could be used to wage biological warfare. Of these, she stated, smallpox and the 1918 influenza virus were most likely for harm.

Numerous Western nations produce and stockpile biological (and chemical) agents, as do several so-called "rogue nations." Iraq, for example, is known to have the capability to manufacture and disseminate biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction.

This, in fact, was a real concern for U.S. and other coalition troops fighting the Iraqis during Desert Storm in 1991.It was also a concern of Israelis, who came under repeated attack by Iraqi Scud missiles. Dozens of such missiles hit Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities, although none contained chemical or biological agents.

Saddam Hussein had, in fact, used biological weapons against his own people in Kurdish villages some years before his invasion of Kuwait. Women and children were among his many casualties.

Bioterror weapons of mass destruction can also be delivered through other means, such as aerosol or garden sprayers.

The outbreak of West Nile virus in the United States posed enough of an enigma to attract the attention of the CIA and other federal agencies. The virus hit parts of New York City, and later traveled north as far as Vermont and south to the Carolinas last summer.

Similar strains of the West Nile virus have been found in Egypt, Israel and Iraq. Scientists familiar with the case admit there is no sure way to prove whether the virus migrated naturally from these places or was "humanly introduced" -- that is, as part of a terrorist operation directed against the United States.

As Gen. Zinni said during the Cole hearing: "All we can do is continue to prepare our people; to make them aware, to learn"--a theme echoed by the Florida panel of experts.

Copyright 2000 by United Press International.
All rights reserved.

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