Biochem terror: a reality check

After Sept. 11, experts assess the threat of bioterrorism attacks.

The fear of imminent chemical or biological attack by terrorists that is gripping millions of Americans is unfounded. But the chances that someone is planning something of the sort are high enough to warrant defensive measures, and America is ill-prepared.

That appears to be the consensus among experts and politicians as Americans grapple with the possibility that the Sept. 11 attacks were only the beginning of a terrorist campaign that could see much worse.

"The threat of bio-terrorism has been blown out of proportion," says Raymond Zilinskas, an expert at the Center for Non-Proliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute for International Studies. "There may be a threat, but it is fairly distant."

"You can't put a number on it, but you have to say there's a real enough chance that you have to do whatever is necessary to prevent it in the first place, and to deal with it effectively if it happens," adds Michael Moodie, director of the Chemical and Biological Arms Institute in Washington.

If it does happen, warns Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, "I don't know anybody in any city ready to fully deal with this."

There are many reasons why analysts downplay the prospects of a terrorist group making and spreading chemical or biological agents in the sort of attack that would cause mass casualties. But perhaps the most compelling is a lesson some terrorism experts are drawing from the events of Sept. 11.

They showed how terrorists could cause huge destruction not by developing new technologies, but instead by appropriating existing tools, such as jet planes.

"If terrorists were to look for a shortcut to mayhem," suggests Amy Smithson, a researcher at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington, they need look no further than the 850,000 chemical plants in the United States that contain hazardous materials.

"Think Bhopal," says Dr. Smithson. Bhopal was the site of a Union Carbide plant in India where a 1984 leak released a toxic cloud of gases that killed 3,000 people. Crashing an airplane into a similar plant in the United States could have similar results.

But doomsday scenarios, in which millions of people die from smallpox or bubonic plague, seem far-fetched, say most experts.

For a start, "acquiring and using chemical and biological weapons in a manner that causes mass casualties is not shake'n'bake easy" as Dr. Smithson puts it in her recent book "Ataxia: The Chemical and Biological Terrorist Threat and the U.S. Response."

That, she says, helps explain why there have been only 16 incidents worldwide of terrorists causing five or more injuries with chemical or biological weapons since 1975, among the more than 9,000 terrorist attacks monitored by the State Department.

Procuring deadly chemical or biological agents is the first hurdle a terrorist group would have to overcome. Smallpox virus, for example, has been officially stored in only two repositories - one in Atlanta and one in Russia - since the disease was eradicated in 1980.

Some US officials suspect that Iraq and North Korea might have held on to some of the virus, but experts say it is so contagious that only the most foolhardy terrorists would risk working with it.

Anthrax, another biological agent, also poses problems. It occurs naturally in sick cattle and camels, but isolating a virulent strain that would kill humans is a difficult task. The same is true of Botulinum toxin, which causes botulism. There are 675 strains of Clostridium Botulinum, which may explain why Aum Shinrikyo, the millenarian Japanese sect, failed to isolate a deadly strain for any of its nine attacks on Tokyo, which caused no casualties.

Aum Shinrikyo did manage to manufacture the nerve agent Sarin, which they released in the Tokyo subway. Twelve subway employees who handled the soft drink cans containing the agent died, and 50 people were injured (though thousands went to hospital afraid they had been contaminated).

But even spending $10 million dollars, Aum Shinrikyo chemists were unable to scale up to industrial production of Sarin. A basement lab, according to a Pentagon report, would take 20 years to manufacture enough of the chemical to kill 10,000 people.

Even assuming a terrorist organization got its hands on a deadly chemical or germ, dispersing them in such a way as to kill large numbers of people would require skills that only a handful of governments have ever mastered.

One of the most common fears is that city reservoirs might be poisoned, rendering kitchen taps instruments of death. But the huge amounts of agent that would have to be dumped in a reservoir to have any effect would make this approach impracticable, experts say.

Moreover, the chemicals used to purify city water supplies "destroy all but the hardiest agents," according to a report by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Nor is aerial spraying much easier. A terrorist cannot use anthrax cells, for example, which degrade to impotence after a few minutes' exposure to sunlight. Instead, the cells must be stressed through a complex procedure that transforms them into spores, and then suspended in a formulation that does not clog the nozzle of a spraygun.

"That is somewhat of a trick," says Dr. Zilinskas. "The US and Soviet Armies did it, but only after years of testing by very, very good people." Crop dusters, for example, cannot disperse a spray finer than 40 microns. But doctors say particles must be smaller than 10 microns to enter the lungs and infect a victim

Transport also poses a problem: Unless the anthrax was in dry form (and the Iraqi government never mastered the drying process) it would have to be smuggled into the United States in bulky containers of sludge, unless it had been secretly manufactured in America.

Nonetheless, US officials say they have evidence that Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect behind the Sept. 11 attacks, has been experimenting with germ warfare.

CIA director George Tenet warned last June that "terrorists who fly no national flag are trying to acquire chemical and biological weapons."

Should bioterrorists unleash an attack on America, the country's long neglected public healthcare system, in its current state, might not be able to detect an attack quickly enough to properly limit its effect and treat victims, say experts.

Few doctors or nurses are trained to recognize the symptoms of plague or anthrax infection, hospitals do not communicate with one another enough to detect patterns of illness, there are not enough spare beds to cope with a sudden surge in patients, and there are shortages of vaccine against illnesses such as smallpox or anthrax.

"No place in the United States could handle an event with casualties in the thousands over a short period of time," warns Moodie, pointing to "dry run" exercises in recent years around the country that left authorities helpless.

Remedying the problems "is neither easy nor cheap," worries Moodie. "And it needs the integration of many players into a strategic approach." More than 40 US agencies have some sort of role in countering bioterrorism, he says, "and many of them have never been at the same table together."

The recent Cabinet-level appointment of Tom Ridge, Governor of Pennsylvania, as the new "Homeland Security" chief, is intended to put some order into a system where different branches of government cannot even agree on which biological agents pose the greatest risks.

The feeling of alarm that has swept America, says Moodie, could be just the catalyst needed to reform a neglected and badly organized system that offers citizens little protection in the event of a bioterror attack.

"The only certainty we have is that we will lose if we do nothing," he argues. "Sept. 11 created the opportunity to ensure that we don't do nothing."

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