- WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- The United States is ripe for a terrorist attack
using biological weapons and is nowhere near ready for it, health experts
- "Are we ready? Absolutely not. Should
we get ready? I don't think we have a choice," said Michael Osterholm,
the state epidemiologist at Minnesota's Department of Health.
- "It isn't a matter of if -- it's
a matter of when."
- Some experts have argued that a biological
attack is unlikely because it would be too hard to organize. But Osterholm
said that just because biological weapons have not been used much in the
past did not mean they were not a strategy for the future.
- "There is a growing number of millennium
cults who believe the year 2000 could be the end of the Earth and should
be the end of the Earth, and are actively pursuing ways to bring that about,"
he told a news briefing sponsored by the National Foundation for Infectious
- Such weapons were easy to put together.
"The bad guys already know about it," Osterholm, a top expert
in the spread of diseases, said. "If you want to go on the Internet,
the information is readily available."
- GAO recommends formal risk assessment
- Reflecting growing concern in Congress
about potential terrorist attacks involving such biological agents or chemical
or nuclear arms, the General Accounting Office recommended in a report
released Tuesday adoption of a formal threat and risk assessment process
to enhance state and local preparedness.
- The GAO, the investigative and audit
arm of Congress, said Congress should consider tapping the Federal Bureau
of Investigation to lead such an effort, according to a summary released
by Reps. Ike Skelton, a Missouri Democrat, and Dennis Hastert, an Illinois
- The main advantage of biological weapons
is their delayed action. Osterholm said someone could leave a small box
in the lobby of the World Trade Center in New York, for instance, without
- A 5 pound (2 kilogram) box could contain
a million doses of smallpox virus and it could be rigged to disperse the
virus quietly over a two-week period. No one would know.
- He said the main threats are anthrax
and smallpox, but plague, the botulin toxin that causes botulism food poisoning,
ricin, and Q fever, caused by Rickettsia microbes that act like both bacteria
and viruses, could all be used as weapons.
- Experts have frequently accused extremist
groups of testing anthrax as a weapon. The disease, normally animal-borne,
can be fatal in humans.
- Osterholm described a World Health Organization
(WHO) scenario in which 100 pounds (50 kg) of anthrax would be dispersed
just over a mile (2 km) upwind from downtown Washington, D.C., a city of
500,000 people. "In a short time you would kill or incapacitate 220,000
persons," he said.
- This would overwhelm hospitals and emergency
response teams. There are vaccines and antibiotics against anthrax, but
they would be no good once someone showed the symptoms.
- "I can't imagine trying to get 500,000
people in and telling them we have to give them three vaccinations in 30
days and give them antibiotics for 30 days," Osterholm said.
- Federal response teams poorly prepared,
- He said an attack on Minnesota's Mall
of America, visited by people from all over the world, could infect 350,000
people in a single day.
- Dr. Richard Duma, an infectious disease
expert at Halifax Medical Canter in Daytona Beach, Florida, agreed. "There
should be a plan for all these diseases and how they should be handled,
rather than burying our heads in the sand."
- Osterholm and Duma said federal response
teams, though ready for a bomb attack or natural disaster, were poorly
prepared for a medical emergency.
- The warnings have not fallen on deaf
ears. In his State of the Union address in late January, Clinton said it
was important to prevent biological warfare or terrorism by strengthening
an international convention against biological weapons with inspections
to detect and deter cheating.
- Last month defense officials said National
Guard rapid-response teams would be set up later this year, to be stationed
in 10 geographical areas designated by the Federal Emergency Management
- And the Pentagon is involved in a federal
government effort to train first-response teams to deal with chemical,
biological or other such emergencies in 120 of the largest U.S. cities.
- But Osterholm said the plan focused on
cities, neglecting larger metropolitan areas such as Minneapolis-St. Paul.