- WASHINGTON--Despite years of warnings from experts, the United States is
poorly prepared to defend its armed forces from the rising threat of germ
warfare and lags even more in protecting Americans at home, defense officials
- As President Clinton and other leaders
have been proclaiming the dangers of biological weapons, officials acknowledge
that they are taking only the first steps to develop the high-technology
gear, medicine and organization needed to respond to germ arsenals believed
held by 16 nations and, perhaps, terrorist groups as well.
- So far, the government deserves "a
D or a C-minus" for its efforts, said one top defense official who
declined to be identified. "We have a long way to go."
- In Los Angeles County, for example, officials
got basic briefings from the Pentagon only last month on how to handle
germ attacks and are a long way from training the 49,000 medical, fire
and police personnel who might have some role if an attack occurs.
- Governments have lagged in preparing
for such a possibility because, until recently, they have deemed the odds
against an attack simply too long to justify the cost of preparation.
- And even now, the threat should not be
overstated. While almost any biochemistry major can create germ cultures,
it is difficult to turn them into weapons that work. Partly because of
this, most terrorist groups have shown little interest in germ weapons--certainly
far less than in car bombs or conventional explosives, authorities say.
- Yet the odds of an attack have been steadily
rising, and authorities have begun speaking out on the growing risks as
they have made new preparations to deal with them.
- Recently, Defense Secretary William S.
Cohen announced that all 2.4 million active-duty and reserve troops will
be inoculated against anthrax, a deadly bacterium. And last spring, he
shifted $500 million to the Pentagon's five-year budget for defense against
biological and chemical attacks.
- In November, an expert defense advisory
group urged the Pentagon to sharply step up efforts to provide a stronger
"homeland" defense against germ and chemical attacks. During
a recent TV appearance, Cohen used a 5-pound bag to
- emphasize a warning that such a quantity
of a biological agent could wipe out half of the 600,000 people in Washington.
While federal authorities do not believe that the time has come for mass
vaccination of U.S. citizens, they and outside experts acknowledge that
governments have more to do.
- Vaccination of all U.S. active-duty and
reserve troops against anthrax is a valuable step, most experts agree,
because such a move will protect soldiers and sailors from all but the
most intense exposures. A defense against anthrax is prudent, they say,
because the agent is by far the easiest and most inexpensive to use. But
vaccines for other agents, and a long-discussed "universal" germ
warfare vaccine, are probably years away.
- Experts have taken long strides since
the Persian Gulf War in developing ways to detect germ attack. A laser-based
detection system mounted on a Blackhawk helicopter can identify a threatening
cloud of a biological agent at a distance of 18 miles.
- Two months ago, the Army fielded a new
system that can identify a germ agent in as little as 20 minutes. It may
take years, however, to develop the most valuable tool: a detector that
can quickly discover and identify an agent when it has been released.
- In addition, officials say that despite
infusions of cash, the military needs far more resources. The armed forces
now have two rapid-response teams on 24-hour alert to help handle such
disasters at home or abroad: the Marine Corps' Chemical Biological Incidence
Response Team and the Army's Technical Escort Unit. Yet officials acknowledge
that with their few hundred personnel, these teams would be stretched thin
in the event of a major disaster.
- Some experts also argue that the United
States needs to improve its on-the-ground spying to find out which nations
are preparing germ arsenals--something spy satellites can't do well.
- In addition, troops need more training
in reacting to battlefield germ attacks. "It takes time to integrate
it into battlefield use," said Zachary Selden, an analyst at Business
Executives for National Security, a private group in Washington. Despite
the challenges, the military'sNAIROBI (Reuters) - Scientists in Kenya are
trying to establish whether the anthrax bacteria is responsible for an
epidemic in North Eastern province that has killed at least 143 people
in three months.
- ``We are trying to put the priority on
ruling out anthrax. Anthrax is what we suspect is the cause,'' on Saturday
said Peter Tukei, a medical doctor and senior virologist at the Kenya Medical
- The aid agency Amref also said it was
testing blood and stool samples in an attempt to to rule out anthrax as
a leading suspect for the disease.
- At least 143 people have died in North
Eastern province since October, at the start of severe flooding linked
to the El Nino climatic phenomenon.
- Newspapers reported on Saturday a further
28 people had been killed by the disease in North Eastern province's Garissa
district in the last 24 hours.
- Regional government officials earlier
blamed a strain of malaria for the epidemic.
- Victims have complained of a variety
of symptoms including vomiting, diarrhoea and severe headaches.
- The deadly anthrax bacteria, which usually
affects slaughterhouse workers, spreads from the carcasses of animals to
humans via contact.
- Severe floods have increased the animal
death toll, leading to possible contamination of humans forced to drink
water infected by animal carcasses, Tukei told Reuters. He stressed it
was not yet possible to give a definitive explanation for the disease.
- The Atlanta-based Centre for Disease
Control, the U.N. World Health Organisation and aid agencies are working
with government health officials in an attempt to identify the disease.progress
is far greater than that of civilian authorities.
- Last month, Los Angeles-area officials
became only the eighth municipal group to receive special Pentagon training
on germ and chemical warfare. Pentagon officials say they have a list of
120 cities where training will be held, but it may be five years before
that program is complete.
- In Southern California, several hundred
people from law enforcement, fire and medical organizations were briefed
for four days on how to identify and safely react to germ and chemical
attacks. Those authorities are in turn supposed to train 49,000 area personnel
who might be asked to respond under such conditions.
- But the process is moving slowly: Los
Angeles area officials haven't received their materials for that additional
training yet. Local officials are to be offered a chance to buy secondhand
military protective gear and other equipment, but it isn't clear when that
- Unlike chemical weapons, germ agents
can take several days to sicken victims: The incubation period for anthrax,
for example, is 72 hours. As a result, the first sign that an attack has
occurred may be a huge surge of patients showing up in hospital emergency
- At that point, authorities will be able
to protect some people with antidotes, but many others will already be
- A number of experts have suggested setting
up detectors at likely attack sites, such as subways, to give quick warning
of attacks. But officials in some cities strongly oppose the idea, questioning
the use of precious tax dollars for expensive sensors that not only might
miss attacks if the airborne germs didn't drift past their immediate vicinity
but also could not protect all possible targets. While concerns have been
rising slowly for years, the first full alarms were sounded in 1995 when
the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo released sarin gas in a Tokyo subway, killing
12 people and injuring about 5,500. The attack demonstrated that a terrorist
group can acquire the know-how and materials to do widespread damage.
Before that, the cult failed in four tries--using automobiles and an aerosol
sprayer perched on a rooftop--to mount a germ attack. In the United States
two years ago, the FBI nabbed a white supremacist who had ordered and received
a sample of the bacteria that causes bubonic plague from a scientific mail-order
house in Rockville, Md. Another group, in Minnesota, was convicted of manufacturing
ricin, a deadly plant toxin, for use against Internal Revenue Service agents
and others. Authorities have also read danger in evidence that various
nations have been increasing their stockpiles of germ weapons. Among those
believed to possess, or trying to possess, such weapons are Russia, China,
Iraq, Taiwan, Iran, Egypt, Libya, Syria, North Korea and Israel. Iraq has
resisted United Nations weapon inspections this year in large part to hide
what U.N. officials believe is a growing germ arsenal. The closest thing
to a germ attack in the United States came in 1984, when the Rajneeshee
cult in Oregon sprinkled salmonella bacteria in 10 salad bars to sicken
the local population in an attempt to throw an election in their favor.
Because of this rarity, authorities say they do not believe germ attack
is imminent enough to warrant all U.S. citizens being immunized, as the
troops will be. Yet the threat is great enough, they say, to warrant a
lot more planning, precaution and spending. The likelihood of a germ attack
is "still small," Selden said. "But if it does happen, the
effect could be huge."