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Old 09-17-2001, 11:58 PM   #1
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bioterrorism: how great a threat is it?

Bioterrorism: An Even More Devastating Threat

By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 17, 2001; Page A24


It would require just a small private plane, not a hijacked commercial jetliner. A helper could casually dump a bag of powdery bacterial spores while in flight, rather than having to overpower a planeload of passengers. And the team could land and be home in time for dinner instead of ending it all in a suicidal inferno.

It's called bioterrorism, and experts say it would be a lot easier to conduct and is more likely to occur in the next few years than a replay of last week's terrorist tragedies. A small cloud of bacteria or viruses could easily and silently infect tens of thousands of people, triggering fatal outbreaks of anthrax, smallpox, pneumonic plague or any of a dozen other deadly diseases. And victims infected with contagious ailments could pass the microbes to thousands of others before doctors even figured out what was going on.

Moreover, bioterrorism could foment political instability, given the panic that fast-moving plagues have historically engendered.

"The events in New York and Washington were tragedies beyond what anyone had previously imagined, but the potential of biological terrorism is far greater in terms of loss of life and disruption," said Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. "It would be less graphic -- no flames and explosions -- but much more insidious. Anyone with a cough would be a weapon."

In many respects the nation is less prepared for bioterrorism than it is for conventional acts of terrorism. An October 1999 General Accounting Office (GAO) report documented major gaps in the nation's system for protecting itself against biological attacks. Inspectors found shortages of vaccines and medicines, stockrooms filled with expired drugs, and lax security measures where crucial drugs were stored.

A January 2001 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta concluded that the nation's public health infrastructure is "not adequate to detect and respond to a bioterrorist event." And a March 2001 GAO report noted that 20 percent of the nation's pharmaceutical and medical supplies held by the federal Office of Emergency Preparedness for a bioterrorist attack were stored in a vault whose temperature was 95 degrees and that had no air-conditioning. The medicines' potency could be assured only if kept cooler than 86 degrees.

Some improvements have been implemented since then. Still, the nation and the world are largely unprepared to fight major outbreaks of deadly diseases like plague, said Norman Cantor, an emeritus professor at New York University and a plague scholar.

"It would be some improvement over the Middle Ages, but not all that great an improvement," he said.

Bioterrorism is not new. Fourteenth-century barbarians tossed plague-infected corpses over the walls of fortified cities to spread the deadly infection among their enemies. In 1763, the English at Fort Pitt, Pa., gave smallpox-laden blankets to Indians who had been loyal to the French. And, as recently as the mid-1990s, U.N. weapons inspectors discovered that Iraq had stockpiled warheads containing anthrax spores and the toxin that causes botulism.

Russian scientists have revealed that the former Soviet Union produced large volumes of weapons-grade anthrax spores. And Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese religious cult that released sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway system in 1995, made several tentative efforts to release biological agents. Members even went to Zaire to learn more about the deadly ebola virus.

An international biological weapons convention signed by 143 nations has outlawed the development, production and stockpiling of biological weapons since 1975, but the absence of any formal verification regime to monitor compliance has limited the effectiveness of the convention, according to the United Nations. In any case, terrorists don't play by the rules. And at least five countries known to sponsor international terrorism have acquired the capacity to produce biological weapons, according to U.S. Army experts.

Despite those capabilities, U.S. preparedness has lagged, in part because bioterrorism has been deemed so unlikely. "Who would do such a thing?" skeptics asked. Last week's attacks in New York and Washington seriously undermined such rational assurances.

Biological attacks can be far more difficult to respond to than conventional terrorist attacks. For one thing, they are covert rather than overt; for days, no one would know that one had occurred. That's a huge problem for a disease like anthrax. Up to 80 percent of people infected by inhaled spores die within days if untreated. By the time symptoms appear -- fever, rash and congested lungs -- it's generally too late.

Another problem is that the first-line defenders against a biological attack would not be police and fire officials, who are specially trained for public safety emergencies. They would be local doctors and hospital staffers, most of whom have received little training in the art and science of being able to recognize and respond to unusual outbreaks quickly.

And contagious diseases -- unlike explosions -- keep spreading long after an initial attack. Smallpox, for example, is easily spread by coughing and sneezing. The disease was declared eradicated in 1980, but vials of the virus were saved and the whereabouts of some are uncertain. Vaccination no longer occurs, leaving an entire generation susceptible to attack. And few doses of the old vaccine remain in storage.

In a federal exercise three months ago, 24 simulated cases of smallpox were "discovered" in U.S. hospitals as part of an assessment of U.S. bioterrorism preparedness. Less than two weeks after those cases popped up, computer models indicated that -- if the exercise had been real -- 15,000 people would have contracted the disease and 1,000 would have died. The "epidemic" was still raging when the exercise ended, and, the computer models predicted, rioting and looting would have broken out as vaccine supplies ran out.

"This would cripple the United States if it were to occur," a former defense department official testified to Congress after the exercise.

A Clinton administration bioterrorism initiative, administered jointly by the CDC and the National Institutes of Health, is speeding development of protective technologies, including portable DNA diagnostic devices that may someday help identify mystery microbes raining from the sky. But the initiative's $300 million budget is a fraction of what will be needed to protect the nation in years to come, Osterholm and others said.

Meanwhile, just in case, the CDC has contracted with two biotech companies to make and stockpile 40 million doses of smallpox vaccine. The first batches that could be used by civilians are expected to be ready in 2004.

----
charming the world we live in, isn't it? i'm still not sure how great the threat is, but if you asked me 1 week ago how great a threat i thought it was that 4 planes would be hijacked and crashed into buildings...

yeah, well anyway, anyone know anything more about this?
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Old 09-18-2001, 12:13 AM   #2
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I know it's the thing that everyone should be most afraid of. Nuclear stuff can be contained, and there should be some warning, plus what is needed to do that would have to make it's way into the country somehow, which *should* be extremely difficult.
Bio stuff can be put together within the country, easily slipped into a water supply etc, and almost impossible to contain.
Plus the diseases are horrible horrible things. At 'least' nuclear is a swift thing.

Sounds far fetched, but like you and the article said, 2 weeks ago, last week sounded far fetched. Everyone says it looked like 'Independence Day', you don't want to see 'Outbreak'.

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Old 09-18-2001, 12:54 AM   #3
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that article is trully frightening, and all too realistic.

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Old 09-18-2001, 02:00 AM   #4
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Actually...

For whatever its worth, in the last few days I have spoken to and read articles from people who would be far more in the know on this subject than the standard media is. The consensus? It's been blown WAY out of proportion. How true is this? Frankly, I don't know. However I'm inclined to believe that while bioterrorism is a threat, it isn't nearly the threat the media has made it out to be.

Why?

If it was really THAT easy it would have been done already.

Obviously this is something we need to take a serious look at, if only because of the shear possibility that it could wreak havoc as described above.

But don't lose sleep over it.
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Old 09-18-2001, 02:32 AM   #5
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This subject is genuinely disturbing. Here is one of the better sites I found on Bioterrorism: Center for the Study of Bioterrorism and Emerging Infections

Here is a snippet from one of the presentations:

How to Vaccinate 30,000 People in 3 Days: Realities of Outbreak Management
Michael T. Osterholm, Ph.D., M.P.H.
Chair and Founder, ican, Inc.

"This past weekend, the Thanksgiving weekend, there were 300,000 people that came to the Mall of America in the Twin Cities. If you look at any large city in this country, Minneapolis-St. Paul, of 2.5 million people, you do the math -- if we could vaccinate 10,000 people a day, how long it would take to get done. Totally unacceptable.
There is no local system in this country that's prepared to deal with this. It's going to have to be a federal, state, local partnership that has to get planned right now, because we're going to have to vaccinate. We're going to have to give out antibiotics in a very short period of time.
I think this really benchmarks our ability to respond to a -- this outbreak to this particular bioterrorism event. But I think the thing I'd really leave you with is it isn't really pretty from where we stand right now. We could not do much more than what we did here in Minnesota. We have a very, very premier system.
If this had been a need to vaccinate 100,000 or 200,000 people, for me, it would have been the difference between having to walk from here to across the street versus having to walk home to Minnesota today. I'd have probably just given up and said, "It can't be done."
We've got to address that issue now, or I'm afraid when it does happen we're going to have a lot of people thinking, well, it just can't be done.
Thank you very much.
(Applause.)"


I haven't read all of the articles, but the general consensus seems to support the article posted by Wanderer: the U.S. has done a lot of work with other countries in recent years to design more effective measures to deal with bioterrorism. Unfortunately, it seems that these efforts are not enough to stop a bioterrorist attack in the near future before it could claim many lives and cause a huge strain on the medical system. I have not read all of the articles, so check the site out yourself.. maybe there are some that have more positive conclusions than the ones I read.

I just realized the guy I quoted from, Osterholm, is one of the same guys quoted in your article, Wanderer.

Check out the "Internet Resources" link on that site for other great sites.

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[This message has been edited by travu2 (edited 09-18-2001).]

[This message has been edited by travu2 (edited 09-18-2001).]
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Old 09-18-2001, 10:04 AM   #6
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Pulled from CNN.com this morning.
http://www.cnn.com/2001/US/09/17/gen.attack.biological/
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Old 09-18-2001, 11:01 AM   #7
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Quote:
Originally posted by MSU2mike:
Pulled from CNN.com this morning.
http://www.cnn.com/2001/US/09/17/gen.attack.biological/
CNN, and other U.S. media outlets, cannot be trusted with such matters. They have in the past been known to have members of government agencies on their staff, acting as 'advisors'.
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Old 09-18-2001, 11:39 AM   #8
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I had a biology professor in college who told me that he and a colleague could easily kill 50,000 people with various and sundry biological weapons if they were evil and if they wanted to. He also said they could probably get away with it. We were having one of those "is the nature of man good or evil" kind of conversations that took a really unpleasant turn.
I laughed at him and told him college professors were the most melodramatic people but he was quite serious. He also suggested that a terrorist group would have much the same resources as he and that they would be able to kill a hell of a lot more than 50,000 people.

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Old 09-18-2001, 01:43 PM   #9
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Quote:
Originally posted by Matthew_Page2000:
I had a biology professor in college who told me that he and a colleague could easily kill 50,000 people with various and sundry biological weapons if they were evil and if they wanted to. He also said they could probably get away with it. We were having one of those "is the nature of man good or evil" kind of conversations that took a really unpleasant turn.
I laughed at him and told him college professors were the most melodramatic people but he was quite serious. He also suggested that a terrorist group would have much the same resources as he and that they would be able to kill a hell of a lot more than 50,000 people.

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I'm certainly not as learned in biological sciences as your professor was, but I feel fairly confident saying he was absolutely 100% wrong. No way could he have done that. No way.

For example, the sarin gas attack in Japan didn't kill a single person if I'm not mistaken. I know that it didn't kill more than a handful. It just isn't as easy as we've been led to believe.

If it was then, as I stated above, it would have been done before. If your professor could have done that it stands to reason that a group like Bin Laden or Iraq would have significantly more resources than a college prof would (shit, he's a PROF for crsakes). You don't think they would have tried something by now? Of course they would have. Unless...unless they had something planned as a follow-up to last week's attacks. Hmmm...

Anyway, the idea that it's both easy to do and get away with I find patently absurd. Of course, take this with at least one grain of salt as biology is certainly not an area of expertise for me.

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Old 09-18-2001, 01:45 PM   #10
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In response to kobayashi, I agree. The major media often has facts very wrong on these issues and, as I said in an earlier post, I think they've led the public to believe that this is a far greater threat than it really is.

That might not be a bad thing though, as this certainly is a threat of SOME magnitude and of course something we'd want to stop before it got started. Creating public awareness could help get the ball rolling. But I don't like the idea of creating unwarranted panic in the public.

[This message has been edited by MSU2mike (edited 09-18-2001).]
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Old 09-18-2001, 04:11 PM   #11
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I hope that you're both right. The prof in question is a pretty bright man and not overly given to bullshit.

Regarding sarin gas: It's a chemical agent and it can't be passed on from victim to victim. After it disperses it is no longer a threat. A highly contagious airborn biological agent would be a much larger problem.

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Old 09-18-2001, 07:34 PM   #12
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The guy who has led the UN group in charge of keeping an eye on Iraq over the past 10 yrs in regards to chemical/bio/nuclear weapons is an Australian called Richard Butler. Obviously this guy would be one of the better informed in the world in Middle East relations, and the who/how/what/where of these weapons. He would know exactly what their capabilities were and how serious the threat is.

He is in Australia at the moment and is being used alot for his opinions on TV as all of this is unfolding, most notably a long (excellent) interview on Australian 60 Minutes last Sunday night. A few things he has said....

He is scared, very very scared at all of this. He thinks this sooo easily could blow into something much bigger and more dangerous for the world. eg a proper 'war' with several muslim countries jumping in against the US. He says how the US handles the retaliation is crucial.

He believes the terrorist attacks on the US are not the last. He says bin Laden is a very smart guy who would have planned well ahead of the plane attacks, even planned for after his own death. He says bin Laden would be well aware he would be a prime suspect, and that the US would then come after him and maybe get him (he thinks this will be very very hard on its own). So when the US retaliates, he believes bin Laden has something up his sleeve to retaliate back. Already in place, waiting to go. Also says he's smart enough to know that airport/planes would be shut down or under ultra security so the US should be looking everywhere but that. (One of his quotes is that he gets a horrible cold chill when he see's 80,000 people just sitting there in a stadium)

He also says that there is abit of an ego/outdoing thing amoung the main terrorist groups (obviously this is all to do with ego/power etc for bin Laden like Hussein/Hitler etc. Nothing to do with religion really, it's just easy to manipulate people behind that) and all these groups and leaders want to be the big Muslim hero, so he wouldn't be surprised if another group desperate to be seen as idols by Muslims may try and 'one up' bin Laden. Apparently that is how it often works.

And finally, he believes chemical/bio/nuclear weapons are a genuine, very serious threat, and that they are out there among these groups. And that there is a serious, although unlikely, chance there is nuclear out there as well (coming from former Soviet states through the black market). Remember Iraq has used chemical weapons against their own people before, so why is it so hard to believe that they would use them against an enemy?

So yeah, sorry if this scares but it is real.
This guy is obviously very very credible. When he talks, whole governments and the UN listen.

Oh and don't think it will necessarily be the US. He stressed that bin Laden is ultra smart. If the worlds attention is on the US, who is watching the back door? London, Tokyo, Sydney, Berlin....All these countries jumping up and down in support of the US...

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Old 09-20-2001, 03:34 AM   #13
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Thank you, TylerDurden. That is really interesting and very scary.

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