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Report: U.S. Ill-prepared for Bio Attack

Sunday, 30 September 2001 12:00 AM

In a Page One story in Sunday's New York Times, the paper quoted senior military and medical experts who say the government is woefully unprepared to deal with this looming threat.

Should an enemy lurking within U.S. borders release lethal viruses or bacteria into the atmosphere or inject them into food or water supplies, the nation lacks the means to protect Americans from the deadly effects.

One anthrax attack, for example, could kill hundreds to millions of people.

While most experts say that such a surprise attack would be difficult to pull off, sooner or later some terrorist or terrorist group will acquire the ability to launch either a chemical or biological assault against the U.S.

In a wide-ranging analysis in the Sunday New York Times, correspondent Sherl Gay Stolberg explains the dilemma the U.S. faces in dealing with the bioterrorism threat.

"For bioterrorism, the No. 1 inadequacy, if you had to rank them, is the inadequacy of our public health infrastructure," Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., told the Times.

Frist, a physician, said, "That is a product of about 15 years of neglect."

And the General Accounting Office, the watchdog congressional agency, reported last week that the government's bioterrorism planning was so uncoordinated that the agencies charged with dealing with the problem could not even agree on which of the many biological agents posed the biggest threat.

The Times cited officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who, for instance, consider smallpox a major risk, while the FBI does not even have smallpox on its list of biological threats.

Stolberg cites Dark Winter, an exercise conducted at Andrews Air Force Base that was meant to determine how well the nation could cope with an outbreak of smallpox.

As reported in NewsMax.com last week, the exercise began with the report of a case of smallpox discovered in Oklahoma City and escalated into a nationwide epidemic, spreading to 25 states and killing no fewer than several million victims.

During the imaginary epidemic, the government quickly ran out of smallpox vaccine – the U.S. has on hand little more a scant 7 million doses, according to some reports, or 15 million doses according to others – and was forced to make decisions on who would get the vaccine and who would face death.

Experts say at least 40 million doses would be needed in the event of an outbreak of the disease.

"Dark Winter showed just how unprepared we are to deal with bioterrorism," Jerome M. Hauer, the former head of emergency management in New York City and now a bioterrorism consultant to Tommy G. Thompson, the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, told the Times. "It pointed out that there were significant challenges to all levels of government."

The most pressing problem medical experts report is the need to improve the government's ability to identify a biological attack as it is occurring, Stolberg writes.

"We are not going to have a bomb fly out of the sky and land on somebody so that we can say, 'Look, there's a bomb, and we are all dying of anthrax,' " according to Asha M. George, who studies biological warfare for the Nunn-Turner Initiative, a nonprofit foundation in Washington.

George told the Times: "It is most likely going to be a covert release, and people will get sick and go to their hospitals, and the public health system will have to pick up on this."

That system was tested in the immediate aftermath of the World Trade Center attack.

As reported in NewsMax.com last week, a special 22-person Army unit in upstate New York was rushed to New York City within minutes of the attack, where they tested the air for the presence of biological agents and poisons. None were found, but the rapidity of the response was good news to concerned officials.

Health agencies also were alerted, and steps were taken to locate any evidence that a chemical or biological attack had been launched simultaneously with the WTC and Pentagon assaults.

But, Stolberg writes, "in many respects, Sept. 11 was not a true test. There were no biological or chemical agents to detect. Because there were far fewer people injured than officials had originally expected, the epidemic intelligence officers were working in relatively calm hospital surroundings, as opposed to crowded emergency rooms. The drugs and medical supplies went largely unused."

"When you don't see very uncommon things, you don't think about very uncommon things," Nicole Lurie, a former federal health official who worked on bioterrorism issues in the Clinton administration, told the Times. "I saw three people in the morning yesterday with acute respiratory illness. They all had the same symptoms. Should I think this is bioterrorism?"

"Are we prepared to prevent it? No," Dr. Lurie told the Times. "Are we prepared to respond to it? It depends on what form it takes. I would say that we are a whole lot further along than we were three or four years ago."

Hauer agreed. "A lot of what we need to do is being done," he said. "The problem is some of these steps take time."

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In a Page One story in Sunday's New York Times, the paper quoted senior military and medical experts who say the government is woefully unprepared to deal with this looming threat. Should an enemy lurking within U.S. borders release lethal viruses or bacteria into the...
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2001-00-30
Sunday, 30 September 2001 12:00 AM
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