Anthrax attacks continue to mystify

By CLAUDE SALHANI  |  Dec. 21, 2001 at 4:53 PM
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WASHINGTON, Dec. 21 (UPI) -- Just over a year ago, in November 2000, I was among a small group of journalists invited to attend a workshop on bioterrorism in St. Petersburg, Fla., that was organized by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Florida's Pinellas County Board of Supervisors and the University of Southern Florida.

The underlying theme at the two-day conference was that as a nation, the United States, was ill-prepared for a bioterrorist attack.

Now, 13 months later, and three months after the Sept. 11 attacks, we remain as unprepared and unsure on how to react to the threat of terrorists using biological and chemical agents as weapons of mass destruction.

"It takes a crisis for people to react," said Larry Grossman, former president of NBC News, during his address to the Florida workshop. "The time to prepare is now," he added. At the time, and remember, this occurred just a year ago, not many people knew where to start, or exactly what bioterrorism involved.

Today, we remain as much in the dark even after anthrax letters that were delivered to members of Congress and the media.

Since Sept. 11 there have been 22 cases of confirmed and suspected anthrax infections in the United States, including five deaths from inhalation anthrax, the most serious form of the infection. Hundreds of others received treatment for it.

However, the anthrax attacks continue to baffle authorities who have been unable to identify the exact source or the perpetrators of these attacks.

Much of this is evident in the way the anthrax attacks have been handled on Capitol Hill. The authorities have yet to determine who, what and how the contamination spread, or even to establish how many people have been affected by the agent, or yet, how to treat them.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the CDC have been unable to eliminate all the anthrax spores in the Senate Hart building on Capitol Hill.

"All their attempts have not worked," said one observer familiar with the case.

More than 3,000 people on Capitol Hill have been exposed to the spores. Among them are about 70 people that the Health and Human Services Department consider "extreme" and remain concerned about.

Although as one observer put it, "they know what the devil is," they are still having a hard time figuring out what course of action to take, as is outlined in the following from the CDC "Consent Form" released to people who might have been exposed to anthrax spores.

"Not much is known about people who may have been exposed to very large numbers of spores, such as those in post office or government buildings during the recent attacks ...."

"Whether or not 60 days of drugs is enough is not known, because spores can stay in the body for a long time and may be hard to get rid of." The CDC statement continues: "There are risks from taking the drugs for a long time."

"... We do not know if giving anthrax vaccine along with drugs after a person is exposed to anthrax spores is better than giving drugs alone to prevent the disease. The Food and Drug Administration has not approved anthrax vaccine for this use. There are risks to taking the vaccine."

And finally, the CDC continues: "It is very important that you understand that this use of the vaccine has never been tested in people and no one knows if it offers any additional protection from infection."

In other words, we are not much more advanced than we were 13 months ago. What we do know about those weapons, however, remains frightening.

Biological terrorism is the intentional use of micro-organisms or toxins derived from living organisms to produce death or disease in humans, animals or plants.

Biological agents as weapons of mass destruction are becoming more of a possibility than many of us care to realize. They are often called the "poor man's weapon," because of their low price when compared to other weapons of mass destruction.

Consider these figures provided to the United Nations by an expert panel in 1969: A large-scale operation against a civilian population using conventional weapons might cost $2,000 per square kilometer, $800 with nerve gas and only $1 with biological agents. One dollar! Granted, these prices are outdated by some 30 years, but still, you get the drift.

Furthermore, biological weapons such as anthrax, for example, have a far greater "kill" capacity. A 1970 study by the World Heath Organization shows that the effect of a "hypothetical dissemination by aircraft of 50 kilograms of anthrax along a 2-kilometer line, upwind of a population center of 500,000 would kill 95,000 and incapacitate 125,000."

Those are astounding figures.

While there remains a number of obstacles to allowing potential terrorists to disseminate bio-agents such as anthrax from the air, several of the Sept. 11 hijackers, including ringleader Mohammad Atta, were reported by the FBI to have shown interest in crop duster planes -- one possible way of delivering bio-agents from the air.

Following the Florida bio-conference, I raised the question, "that if, and when that threat materializes, will we, as a nation, be ready to deal with it?"

At an Oct. 19, 2000, hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee investigating the terrorist attack on the USS Cole, (also blamed on Osama bin Laden) retired Marine Corps. general and former Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Central Command Anthony Zinni said: "We will eventually see a weapon of mass destruction used in a terrorist act. And I would say we had better start thinking about how we're going to be prepared for the threat, because we're woefully unprepared for that event, and that's inevitable."

"Biological warfare may not seem an immediate threat to many Americans, but, in fact, the risk of this sort of human destruction is real," said Faith Fitzgerald, a professor of medicine at the University of California-Davis School of Medicine, who spoke earlier this year on biological warfare and its consequences at a lecture sponsored by the Brown University School of Medicine.

"The effects of biological warfare don't have to be intentional," she added. "In 1979, in Sverdlosvsk, Russia, there was an epidemic in which 66 Russians died from the inhalation of anthrax."

The United States has had its fair share of homegrown terrorism. "As long as there are people out there who are crazy ... we will have to be concerned about this," Fitzgerald said.

She listed 23 viruses which could be used to wage biological warfare. Of these, she stated, smallpox and the 1918 influenza virus were most likely for harm.

Numerous Western nations produce and stockpile biological (and chemical) agents, as do several so-called "rogue nations." Iraq, for example, is known to have the capability to manufacture and disseminate biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction.

This, in fact, remains a real concern for the United States. Saddam Hussein had used biological weapons against his own people in Kurdish villages in 1988.

During the hearings on the USS Cole attack, Zinni said, "All we can do is continue to prepare our people; to make them aware, to learn."

But in light of the Sept. 11 attacks and the reality of the anthrax attacks since then, it is obvious that a lot more needs to be accomplished in this field.

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