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US remains vulnerable to bio-terror attack: experts

Written by: Staff

Washington, Aug 9 (UNI) The US government's 28 billion dollar crash programme, including new ways to offset bio-terror attacks, has been fitted on all potential terrorist targets here but experts says despite this vast spending, the nation remains highly vulnerable, especially against new, synthetically created germs for which the United States has no antidotes.

The FBI headquarters, World Bank and several other potential terrorist targets in the nation's capital have been outfitted with new germ-killing, air-purifying filters. In dozens of other larger cities, technicians now routinely retrieve air samples to test for killer anthrax spores, smallpox virus particles or other germs.

''The US does not yet have a coherent biodefense strategy that takes into account the full spectrum of possible bioweapons agents, including engineered threats,'' Tara O'Toole, a co-founder of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Biosecurity, recently told Congress

.As a result, the nation remains exposed to an attack such as the one envisioned in a 1993 government study, which estimated that 130,000 to 3 million people would die from the release of 100 kg of anthrax spores upwind of Washington DC.

Federal agencies have taken other steps since a still-unknown assailant mailed anthrax-laced letters in October 2001 that killed five people, sickened 17 others and paralysed Congress.

It has stockpiled five million doses of anthrax vaccines and 300 million doses of smallpox vaccine. It has installed hundreds of indoor and outdoor air monitors, financed round-the-clock testing laboratories in every state and trained more than 174,000 emergency response personnel.

''I think we've made very significant progress from where we were in 2001,'' said John Vitko, director of the Department of Homeland Security's biological countermeasures unit. He said systems are in place at his agency and the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to detect, quickly respond to and reduce casualties from a ''moderate or large'' attack on a major city.

Even one of the government's harshest critics offered praise, Mike Osterholm, a University of Minnesota epidemiologist and biological weapons expert said the governemnt has dramatically reduced chances that an attack with anthrax or highly infectious smallpox would be ''a horrific event''.

But according to a report in the Sacramento Bee, a California publication, watchdogs at Pittsburgh's biosecurity center, though, are worried. Senior associate Brad Smith, a molecular biologist, said it made sense to initially focus on anthrax and smallpox because they were ''the low-hanging fruit'' widely recognised as threats. But, he said, ''it is very clear that the technology is to a point now where fairly modestly trained and educated individuals could do a lot of harm if they wanted to create a biological weapon''.

Rep John Linder, R-Ga, chairman of a House Homeland Security subcommittee that watches over the government's bio-terrorism programmes, points to a recent US intelligence assessment that, within a year or two, technology could exist to artificially produce the smallpox virus.

''We're very vulnerable,'' Linder said, ''but we're in better and better shape, because at least we're paying attention to it.'' An emerging component of the bio-terrorism defence is a below-the-radar campaign to better protect public and private building occupants with stronger air filtration.

Mechanical work also is under way to revamp the US Capitol's ventilation system - work that the office of the Architect of the Capitol declines to discuss because it is "security sensitive." A system developed by Strion Air of Louisville, Colo., has been installed in about a dozen federal buildings in the Washington area.

It combines 95 per cent filtration efficiency with germ-killing ionising rays and an electrostatic charge that causes microbes to cling to objects rather than stay suspended in the air. The firm's clients include the FBI, the World Bank and California's Lawrence Livermore Laboratory.

One bonus of these filters - used in large enough numbers, they could save billions of dollars a year by reducing respiratory illnesses, allergies, asthma and sick building syndrome. But in addition to questions about the air filters' ability to neutralise a bioterror attack, there's the issue of cost. Wade Belcher, a General Services Administration architect, said it would cost tens of billions of dollars to retrofit all 8,920 federal buildings.


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