Bioterrorist Attack on the United States is Not Being Adequately Addressed

U.S. Still Unprepared for Bioterrorism
by Harvey Black
UPI Science News

Source: United Press International

February 17, 2001

SAN FRANCISCO, (UPI) -- The threat of a bioterrorist attack on the United States is not being adequately addressed though progress on preparations is being made, a panel of scientists and physicians told the annual meeting of American Association for the Advancement of Science Saturday.

"The threat is very real and growing, we cannot afford to be complacent," said Margaret Hamburg, former assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Even the several hundred millions of dollars invested in research and development on methods to deal with a bioterrorist threat is too low, said Col. Edward Eitzen, commander of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md.

A recent Internet search, said Eitzen, turned up 54 firms that will ship and sell anthrax microbes and 18 that will do the same for plague-causing bacteria.

The public health infrastructure in the U.S. is not up to dealing with such a threat, said Hamburg. It is not well integrated into the existing medical system and most medical practitioners simply would be unable to recognize the symptoms of illnesses brought on by a biological weapons attack.

Such a biological attack could be particularly insidious said Eitzen. For example smallpox symptoms can take 10 to 14 days to develop -- during that period, infected individuals can be unknowingly spreading the disease.

The response of the public health and medical system will be crucial in determining whether a bioterrorist attack can be dealt with in a timely way or becomes a "runaway event," said Morse. But even determining if an attack is underway may not be easy. Many of the symptoms of biological agents, such as the microbes causing tularemia and Q-fever, canít be distinguished from the flu, explained Stephen Morse, director of the Center for Public Health Preparedness at Columbia University.

New genetic technologies, if implemented, can make an important contribution to speedily detecting the infectious agent causing an outbreak, said J. Craig Venter, president of Celera Genomics of Rockville, Md. Obtaining the complete genome of pathogens offers the ability to distinguish a bioterrorist attack from a naturally emerging pathogen, he said. Such information can play an important role in protecting public health and in the governmentís response to such a situation.

Also needed are new, speedy portable technologies to detect and diagnose whether people have been exposed to pathogens in a bioterrorist attack. Such technologies are being developed, said Morse, "but weíre not there yet."

Copyright 2001 by United Press International
All rights reserved.

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