Tags: U.S. | Unready | Deal | With | Terrorist | Germ | Warfare

U.S. Unready to Deal With Terrorist Germ Warfare Attack

Sunday, 23 September 2001 12:00 AM

Earlier this year authorities set up "Dark Winter," an exercise to determine how the nation would handle an outbreak of smallpox, a virulent, contagious killer. The exercise "ended in chaos when the spreading disease overwhelmed all attempts at containment" according to Sunday's New York Times.

"Most state and local governments have not begun to address the issues that Dark Winter presented," Jerome M. Hauer, former head of emergency management for New York City told a House Government Reform subcommittee in July.

"An incident using biological agents will likely go unnoticed for days, and the typical response of the first responders will have little impact. It is not a `lights and sirens' type of incident."

Smallpox is just one of the deadly plague-type diseases terrorists could use against the U.S., and experts say the government is mostly unprepared to deal with the threat.

Most troubling is the fact that the effects of a biological attack do not become immediately evident, and aside from detecting the presence of biological agents in the atmosphere in the wake of an attack, the only defense is a reactive one, with medical authorities monitoring reports of large outbreaks of a disease days or weeks later and relying on doctors to report that people are coming to them seeking medical attention for unusual symptoms.

On the night of September 11, a special anti-biological warfare unit arrived in New York to test the air for any signs of toxins or biological agents in the atmosphere. They found nothing, the Times revealed.

The emergency teams "did very well in dealing with this attack," Tara O'Toole, a physician at the Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies at Johns Hopkins University, told the Times. "But we've never really had a test of the hospital system where people in large numbers required sophisticated medical care."

In the wake of the September 11th attack, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta issued a national alert, calling on public health officials to "initiate heightened surveillance for any unusual disease occurrence or increased numbers of illnesses that might be associated with today's events."

That alert remains in effect but fortunately there have been no such reports a source told the Times.

According to the Times, medical experts warn that this method of dealing with the threat is inadequate, "especially because symptoms of serious illness often appear days and weeks after an infection has begun to spread and when life-saving treatments are no longer effective."

The nation is "woefully unprepared to deal with bioterrorism," Hauer told Congress two months ago.

Experts caution that the immediate threat of a biological or toxic agent attack is minimal at this point.

"There's a greater risk of dying on the highway than from exposure to anthrax," Jonathan B. Tucker, a germ-weapons expert in the Washington, D.C., office of the Monterey Institute of International Studies told the Times. He warned however that the attacks on New York and near Washington showed that the terrorists involved were highly sophisticated in their planning and execution of the attack and that future terrorists "may be able to overcome the technical hurdles" to mass destruction, especially if aided by rogue states or scientists.

In testimony before Congress last year, CIA Director George J. Tenet, warned that terrorists were exploring how "rapidly evolving and spreading technologies might enhance the lethality of their operations," the Times recalled., adding that a number of groups are seeking biological, chemical, radiological or nuclear weapons.

He also disclosed that agents of Usama bin Laden, "have trained to conduct attacks with toxic chemicals or biological toxins."

While the U.S. has stockpiled drugs and vaccines, according to Dr. O'Toole of the Johns Hopkins center, the nation has vaccines or drugs to combat only about a dozen of the 50 known biological agents.

Moreover, the U.S. has on hand roughly 7.5 million smallpox vaccine doses, wrote Dr. Tucker in "Scourge," a new book on smallpox. That amount, he added, is "inadequate to cope with even a medium-sized outbreak that might result from a bioterrorist attack."

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Earlier this year authorities set up Dark Winter, an exercise to determine how the nation would handle an outbreak of smallpox, a virulent, contagious killer. The exercise ended in chaos when the spreading disease overwhelmed all attempts at containment according to...
Sunday, 23 September 2001 12:00 AM
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