The Battle Against Biological
Weapons - Field Detection
Kit Developed
By Mitzi Perdue
Scripps Howard New Service
(September 15, 1998 01:43 a.m. EDT -- If you're in the mood to put your own troubles in perspective, think for a moment about what Dr. Harvey Ko worries about each day. Then be grateful that someone has the emotional strength to do what he does.
Ko's specialty is counteracting biological weapons -- weapons that involve the deliberate use of bacteria or viruses to cause terror, disruption and death. Typical agents include anthrax, smallpox, rabies and plague. If they're ever unleashed, they'll kill people and be a menace in the environment for decades to come.
Currently more than a dozen countries are suspected of developing biological agents. These include Iraq and some of the other Near East and Far East countries.
Possibly just as worrisome, there are individual eccentrics and terrorist groups. Some of these are also involved in creating their own biological apocalypse.
"Biological weapons," Ko points out, "are the poor man's nuclear weapons. To make a nuclear bomb requires an investment of billions of dollars. Biological weapons can be made inexpensively in a small laboratory."
Unlike conventional weapons, biological weapons do not make their presence known until hours or days later. By the time symptoms develop, it's often too late to help.
To deal with threats of this sort, Ko and his colleagues at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory are developing ways to detect and identify biological threats before the symptoms develop. But one of the problems in developing such a system is that terrorists aren't likely to advertise what kind of biological weapon they're using. That means the detector must have a "broad bandwidth" -- able to detect many kinds of agents.
Further, it has to be able to detect the infectious bacteria or viruses in the most minute quantities. And it has to do it rapidly. If that wasn't a tough enough assignment, the detection device also has to be small enough to be easily transportable. People using it need to be able to take it on location. It's not good enough to have it in a laboratory far away.
To be really functional, the detection device has two more requirements: It can't use a lot of electricity -- in fact, it may need to run on batteries -- and it must be simple enough to operate so that people can learn it easily. And since it has to be available in cities and towns throughout the country, it also needs to be relatively inexpensive, costing less than $10,000.
In answer to these requirements, Ko and his colleagues have designed a portable detector that can provide advance warning for trace amounts of biological weapons. The detector works by taking a sample of air in a suspected area, training a laser on it and then measuring the time it takes for the charged particles in the sample to travel a small distance inside the detector. Each virus or bacteria has different combinations of charged particles. Since the particles travel at different rates depending on how much they weigh, each germ has a different "signature."
On the computer screen, for instance, anthrax looks a little like the fingers of your hand. A person with some training would be able to pick it out as surely as many others could recognize a maple leaf or an oak leaf.
Ko isn't the only one working to counter biological terrorism. It's tough, scary work, but the world is a slightly safer place because he and others like him are willing to deal with the "Saturday night specials" of mass destruction.