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Getting Ahead of Bioterror

September 24, 2001

Terrorists' success at using passenger jets as giant napalm bombs has left national security experts scrambling to anticipate and shield the nation against other threats. Some of those threats bear more resemblance to science fiction fantasy than to documented, imminent danger. But one in particular--the chance that one day terrorists might attack the United States with biological agents like smallpox and anthrax, sometimes called "the poor man's nuclear bomb"--was rightly receiving close attention from President Bush and Congress in the weeks just before the Sept. 11 attacks.

At a Senate hearing Sept. 5, Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) called bioterrorism "a significant threat to our country," and Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) concluded that the Pentagon's "standard operating procedures" do not adequately guard Americans against it.

Experts point out that the threat of a bioweapons attack remains purely theoretical. The only documented deaths caused by bioweapons came in World War II when Japanese soldiers used infectious agents to kill prisoners and in 1979 when about 100 people were killed by accidental release of anthrax at a Soviet military facility in Sverdlovsk, Russia. And although defectors from the Al Qaeda group allege that Osama Bin Laden had tried to acquire viruses from Russia, botulinum toxin from the Czech Republic and anthrax from North Korea, there is no evidence that he or any other terrorist succeeded.

In fact, the lack of good military intelligence about the bioweapons threat is the nub of the problem. At the Senate hearing, Frist, a physician, called existing bioweapons surveillance "woefully inadequate," and former CIA Director R. James Woolsey expressed a "great fear" that some of the 22,000 Russian scientists who had been involved in the Soviet Union's bioweapons programs might be lured, with a few thousand dollars, into developing such weapons for Iraq or even Bin Laden.

While federal officials admit they were completely unprepared for the Sept. 11 aircraft attacks, they had been working in recent months to develop a national bioweapons defense system. The Pentagon had staged bioterror war games, and last month Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson named a special advisor on bioterrorism.

Federal officials, however, need more help from Congress. Legislators should direct $1 billion of their $40-billion anti-terrorism package to defending against biochemical attacks. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) has proposed such funding, mainly to develop vaccines, teach emergency room nurses and doctors how to distinguish between genuine biowarfare and hoaxes or scares, and help pay for international bioweapons surveillance.

A bioweapons attack using an agent like smallpox is almost impossible to imagine. As we now know, that's no reason to dismiss it.

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