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Despite $28 billion program, U.S. remains vulnerable to bioterror attack

Mercury Times
By Greg Gordon

WASHINGTON - The federal government's $28 billion crash program to defend against a bioterror attack is beginning to show up in cities across the country.

The FBI headquarters, World Bank and several other potential terrorist targets in the nation's capital have been outfitted with new germ-killing, air-purifying filters. In dozens of other larger cities, technicians now routinely retrieve air samples to test for killer anthrax spores, smallpox virus particles or other germs.

Experts say this infusion of new technology along with medical resources might diminish the casualty toll of a biological attack using classical germ agents. But they acknowledge that despite the vast spending, the nation remains highly vulnerable, especially against new, synthetically created germs for which the United States has no antidotes.

"The U.S. does not yet have a coherent biodefense strategy ... that takes into account the full spectrum of possible bioweapons agents, including engineered threats," Tara O'Toole, a co-founder of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Biosecurity, recently told Congress.

As a result, the nation remains exposed to an attack such as the one envisioned in a 1993 government study, which estimated that 130,000 to 3 million people would die from the release of 100 kilograms of anthrax spores upwind of Washington, D.C.

Federal agencies have taken other steps since a still-unknown assailant mailed anthrax-laced letters in October 2001 that killed five people, sickened 17 others and paralyzed Congress.

It has stockpiled 5 million doses of anthrax vaccine and 300 million doses of smallpox vaccine. It has installed hundreds of indoor and outdoor air monitors, financed round-the-clock testing laboratories in every state and trained more than 174,000 emergency response personnel.

"I think we've made very significant progress from where we were in 2001," said John Vitko, director of the Department of Homeland Security's biological countermeasures unit. He said systems are in place at his agency and the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to detect, quickly respond to and reduce casualties from a "moderate or large" attack on a major city.

Even one of the government's harshest critics offered praise.

"I think we're light years ahead of where we were pre-9-11," said Mike Osterholm, a University of Minnesota epidemiologist and biological weapons expert who all but prophesied doom in a 2000 book warning of America's vulnerability to germ warfare. The government, he said, has dramatically reduced chances that an attack with anthrax or highly infectious smallpox would be "a horrific event."

Watchdogs at Pittsburgh's biosecurity center, though, are worried. Senior associate Brad Smith, a molecular biologist, said it made sense to initially focus on anthrax and smallpox because they were "the low-hanging fruit" widely recognized as threats.

But, he said, "it is very clear that the technology is to a point now where fairly modestly trained and educated individuals could do a lot of harm if they wanted to create a biological weapon."

Rep. John Linder, R-Ga., chairman of a House Homeland Security subcommittee that watches over the government's bio-terrorism programs, points to a recent U.S. intelligence assessment that, within a year or two, technology could exist to artificially produce the smallpox virus.

"We're very vulnerable," Linder said, "but we're in better and better shape, because at least we're paying attention to it."

An emerging component of the bio-terrorism defense is a below-the-radar campaign to better protect public and private building occupants with stronger air filtration.

In a research paper published last year, a 20-member team of public health professionals, engineers and bioterrorism experts urged use of more efficient filters to reduce the risk of exposure during an anthrax attack. Increasing numbers of building owners are responding.

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a leading backer of the effort, said Rudin Management Inc. has upgraded filters in its 16 New York skyscrapers. Rudin executives didn't respond to phone inquiries.

Mechanical work also is under way to revamp the U.S. Capitol's ventilation system - work that the office of the Architect of the Capitol declines to discuss because it is "security sensitive."

A system developed by Strion Air of Louisville, Colo., has been installed in about a dozen federal buildings in the Washington area. It combines 95 percent filtration efficiency with germ-killing ionizing rays and an electrostatic charge that causes microbes to cling to objects rather than stay suspended in the air. The firm's clients include the FBI, the World Bank and California's Lawrence Livermore Laboratory.

One bonus of these filters: Used in large enough numbers, they could save billions of dollars a year by reducing respiratory illnesses, allergies, asthma and sick building syndrome.

But in addition to questions about the air filters' ability to neutralize a bioterror attack, there's the issue of cost. Wade Belcher, a General Services Administration architect, said it would cost tens of billions of dollars to retrofit all 8,920 federal buildings.

Another growing part of the government's bioterror program is called BioWatch, an $82 million-a-year effort to collect air samples from dozens of cities across the country. Vitko said tests for the major pathogens are conducted at least once a day, more frequently in cities considered prime targets.

"As scary as bio agents are," he said, "they take time to incubate in your body and multiply. So if you can detect that a person has been exposed early, you can usually treat him and prevent him from getting sick."

Smallpox, which has a 30 percent mortality rate, typically takes two weeks to incubate, then becomes highly contagious as symptoms appear.

Even so, it's unclear how effective early detection would be. Even if it worked, said Smith, the government still lacks mechanisms to ensure that medicine and vaccines reach the public.