- (September 15, 1998 01:43 a.m. EDT http://www.nandotimes.com)
-- 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
- 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.