Originally created 10/10/00

Bioterrorist peril grows



With nuclear weapon capability proliferating around the globe, there's been a lot of discussion in the presidential campaign and by Pentagon brass before Congress about the need for a defense against incoming nuclear missiles fired someday, perhaps, by a deranged, suicidal or paranoid Third World tyrant.

Such a nuclear protective shield, which is necessary and technologically possible, should start to be built in the next administration, no matter who wins next month.

But sadly, and appropriately frightening for Halloween month, nuclear missiles aren't the only weapons of mass destruction threatening Americans' security. The U.S. is totally unprepared to deal with bioterrorism, even though the technology to manufacture biological weapons is widely available through open literature and easier to manufacture and deliver than a nuclear bomb.

In a scary talk recently given in Washington at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Dr. Tara O'Toole, deputy director of Johns Hopkins University Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies, underscored the growing bioterrorist threat.

"One hundred grams of anthrax properly dispersed downwind over Washington," said O'Toole, "could kill between 150,000 and 3 million people in the surrounding area." It would also produce fear and panic throughout the country, resulting in more destruction of life and property.

Especially horrifying is the fast pace of technological advances that make it ever simpler to learn about, create, produce and deliver these agents of mass destruction. Ten grams of an effective biological agent, like anthrax, is the equivalent of a ton of chemical nerve gas, says O'Toole.

Lest cynics think O'Toole is exaggerating the peril of bioterrorism to inflate the importance of her agency, then consider what the nation's foremost health agency, the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has to say about bioterrorism:

It "is a significant public health threat facing the nation... There is an urgent need to develop local, state and federal plans to prepare for and respond to bioterrorism."

Earlier this year, the CDC held meetings in Philadelphia, St. Louis, Denver and Atlanta to start developing just such plans. That's good as far as it goes, but it deals only with what to do in the wake of an attack.

O'Toole should also be heeded. She says the government must develop defenses against bioterrorism and suggests a $3 billion annual investment in research and development over the next 10 years could yield substantial progress. In comparison to the multi-billions to be spent on missile defense, that's a cheap price to pay to thwart the growing bioterrorism peril.