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Anthrax Attacks Pushed Open an Ominous Door

September 22, 2002|BARBARA HATCH ROSENBERG | Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, a research professor of molecular biology at State University of New York at Purchase, chairs the Federation of American Scientists Working Group on Biological Weapons.

PURCHASE, N.Y. — On this first anniversary of the anthrax attacks, a number of conclusions can be drawn even without an arrest by the FBI. First, the strain and properties of the weaponized anthrax found in the letters show that it originated within the U.S. biodefense program, where the necessary expertise and access are found. Government officials recognized that the anthrax source was domestic less than two weeks after they learned of the letters, and nothing in their investigation has led them to say otherwise since.

One can also conclude that, given the origin of the anthrax and the warnings contained in the letters, the perpetrator's motive was not to kill but rather to raise public fear and thereby spur Congress to increase spending on biodefense. In this, the attacks have been phenomenally successful.

Paradoxically, however, by breaking the taboo on using biological weapons, the attacks have engendered a threat that could dwarf Sept. 11. Modes of successful attack and public responses have now been demonstrated for the instruction of future terrorists. What's more, it seems to have been easy to hide incriminating evidence, and, after a whole year of FBI bumbling, it looks likely that the attacker will get away with the crime. Although the death toll was relatively low, the strikes crippled business, government and postal services. Contamination in buildings has proved difficult, costly and time-consuming to remove, with some facilities still not restored; the public health system was strained beyond capacity.

Although biodefense has gotten a shot in the arm, it is important to understand that the goal of defending against bioweapons is not primarily public protection--which is largely impossible, as last year's attacks demonstrated. It is rather "to allow the military forces of the United States to survive and successfully complete their operational missions ... in battlespace environments contaminated with chemical or biological warfare agents," according to the annual report of the Department of Defense's Chemical and Biological Defense Program.

Biological weapons are preeminently anti-population weapons. But it would be impossible to provide the entire country with protective suits, masks, detectors, shelters, training and vaccinations against the large and growing array of potential agents. In any event, vaccinations can have serious side effects and can be overcome if the dose of the pathogenic agent is large or if the agent has been engineered to evade the vaccine.

Instead of protection, the civil defense response is entirely concerned with limiting the damage should an attack occur. There are also paradoxes here. Because of the rush to "do something," large amounts of government money are being thrown, without sufficient forethought, at research involving potential biological weapons agents. Scientists go where the money is, and we're now seeing a crowd of biologists lacking in relevant experience trooping to the trough.

The number of research laboratories and personnel handling dangerous pathogens is about to mushroom, making oversight and adequate safety and security control much more difficult to impose--particularly with the increased emphasis on secrecy. Ultimately, the very problem that made the anthrax attacks possible will be magnified.

One can confidently expect the U.S. to squander resources that could far better be used to extend the modest improvements being made in the public health system. Natural outbreaks of disease, including rapidly emerging new diseases for which we are unprepared, are a far more likely hazard for most people. Improving the public health system's ability to respond would help combat these diseases as well as biological attacks.

The anthrax probe has disclosed an astounding degree of irresponsibility and lack of security at Ft. Detrick, Md., home to the nation's premier existing biodefense laboratory. The problems stretch back for decades and extend beyond the anthrax attacks. In spite of a security crackdown there following the attacks, two incidents have occurred this year at Ft. Detrick in which spores escaped from a high-containment laboratory and were found in hallways, offices and locker rooms. One case was recognized only when an unauthorized employee took swabs outside the laboratory to check for anthrax contamination--something no one had thought of doing there before.

The anthrax investigation has raised questions about the nature and value of the work at Ft. Detrick and has brought to light the granting of security clearance and free access to highly dangerous biological agents to someone with falsified credentials--very disturbing whether or not he turns out to be the perpetrator of the anthrax attacks.

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