Warning About Bioterror
Threat To US Agriculture
By Stephen Smith
Boston Globe Staff

LAS VEGAS - They scarcely seem like the classic tools of terrorists: mooing cows, oinking pigs, and clucking chickens. But specialists in public health and agriculture warn that the nation's livestock and crops remain particularly vulnerable to terrorists, threatening the US agricultural system with viral and bacterial infections that could cripple the economy.
Computer models show that an infection such as foot and mouth disease, which decimated Britain's beef industry in 2001, could sweep through 44 states within two weeks of its introduction at a handful of farms in a single state, resulting in 48 million livestock being put to premature deaths.
Although many of the infections, including foot and mouth, pose no direct threat to human health, the economic consequences would be ruinous, specialists said at the Harvard-sponsored BioSecurity 2002 conference, and would seed considerable doubt about the safety of the nation's food supply.
Foot and mouth virus ravaged agriculture as well as tourism in England, forcing quarantine measures against 10,000 farms and the destruction of 6 million cows, sheep, and pigs.
''It is a perfect weapon for doing the kinds of things terrorists do,'' said Dr. Thomas J. McGinn III, assistant state veterinarian in North Carolina. ''As a target, you can imagine why they would hit something like this and as a weapon, they could spread it wherever they want.''
Federal authorities consider the threat so significant that defense against agricultural bioterrorism has a special place in the newly created Department of Homeland Security. Also, last summer, in an exercise conducted at the behest of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, 40 veterinarians, emergency planners, and military authorities convened for a boardroom drill to assess the potential impact of bioterrorism targeted at farms and food processing sites.
The exercise, dubbed Silent Prairie, assumed that the destruction could begin with something as common as a cotton swab dabbed with viral particles.
The dean of the Harvard School of Public Health is so troubled by those threats that he called for the creation of an agency akin to the US Centers for Disease Control to monitor the welfare of the nation's crops and plants. Barry R. Bloom, the Harvard dean who served on a panel evaluating the threat of bioterrorism, told hundreds of public health, military, and private security authorities at the conference that the United States is woefully lacking in its ability to swiftly identify contaminants being introduced into livestock and plants.
''There's relatively little surveillance,'' Bloom said. ''It's an enormous task, and we're not prepared.''
That remains the case even though the potential for terrorists to cause illness and fear by infecting the food supply became dramatically evident 18 years ago, when members of a fringe religious cult spiked salad bars at 10 Oregon restaurants with salmonella. The result: 750 people became ill.
The damage that could be wrought by a more widespread attack, initiated at multiple sites, is profound, Bloom and other specialists said. Agriculture generates $1 trillion in economic impact annually, accounting for 13 percent of the gross domestic product.
Farming is an exceptionally porous industry from a security standpoint, with 24,000 livestock ferried out of just one state, North Carolina, every day, destined for markets across the world. If terrorists chose a virus such as foot and mouth disease, it would spread with stunning efficiency. Studies have shown that the virus can be carried by the wind up to 40 miles; once introduced to a herd, it is 100 percent infectious.
''If someone's determined enough to get something in, they will get it in,'' said Dr. Cindy S. Lovern, assistant director of emergency preparedness and response for the American Veterinary Medical Association. ''Foot and mouth disease can be brought in on a Q-Tip or the bottom of your boot. That's why it's so critical to find it fast and to treat it quickly.''
Foot and mouth is often not fatal to animals, but in the short term produces hideous blistering, and in the long term, impairs their use as productive livestock. The disease rarely produces severe illness in humans, although people can transmit it to animals. Specialists at the BioSecurity conference conjured scenarios in which other viruses and bacteria (including plague, anthrax, and tularemia) could be introduced into animal populations, with the ultimate goal of spreading illness to humans. That probably would prove not to be a particularly efficient mode of transmission but would spawn considerable fear. Early detection of a biological attack is paramount, specialists said.
But the arrival of West Nile virus, blamed for sickening 3,700 people this year and killing more than 200, demonstrates how unprepared the nation is for animal disease outbreaks. Until Dr. Tracey McNamara began testing dead crows near the Bronx Zoo, the emergence of West Nile had gone undetected. ''We still haven't done what needs to be done,'' McNamara said. ''Everybody pays lip service that animals can serve as sentinels of disease outbreak and bioterrorism, but it seems to be a hard concept to fund.''
Stephen Smith can be reached at


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