- As the dust started to settle after the destruction of
the World Trade Centre's twin towers, the least-recognised of emergency
workers were burrowing in the rubble with test tubes, not shovels.
- Public health officials in New York and Washington DC
had been alerted by the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta that
the hijacked aircraft may have been carrying a cargo even more deadly than
thousands of gallons of aviation fuel.
- They were looking for traces of smallpox, anthrax or
other epidemic-causing diseases, perhaps packed in the luggage of the
- For years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, which
with America was the leading developer of nuclear, biological and chemical
weapons, there has been a growing fear of what terrorists could do with
the planet's most terrifying technologies.
- Urgent action by the Americans, working alongside British
and other intelligence agencies, is believed to have reduced the chances
of a terrorist obtaining the machinery and material necessary to produce
a nuclear weapon, although the programmes of rogue states such as Iraq
and North Korea remain a significant threat.
- But much more worrying to many scientists and defence
experts in America is the threat from "bio-terror", the spreading
of lethal diseases through the air or in water supplies.
- The diseases usually mentioned are anthrax, which is
widely available but very hard to keep alive as a "useful"
warfare agent; smallpox, which is a tougher germ, but hard to obtain; and
one or other of the most virulent forms of plague, which is relatively
easy to cure with antibiotics once detected.
- Smallpox is probably top of the list because of reports
that the former Soviet Union had developed techniques to keep the germ
alive in an aerosol form that would resist destruction by fire or
- Western populations today, unlike previous generations,
are not widely inoculated against the disease because it is supposed to
be extinct, except for those phials of smallpox that America and Russia
kept for "experimental purposes". American experts believe that
Russia cannot account for all its supplies of smallpox.
- "The events in New York and Washington were
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 Centre
for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.
- Many experts play down the likelihood of a biological
attack, citing the difficulty of cultivating and keeping alive enough
germs and distributing them with the vagaries of wind and weather.
- But as a measure of concern in America, the CDC has
two biotech companies to make and stockpile 40 million doses of smallpox
vaccine, compared with the seven million now available. The first batches
are not expected to be ready until 2004.
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