THE MAGAZINE

Building Biothreat Defenses

By Joseph Straw

More than seven years have passed since anthrax mailings killed four people, injured 17, and forced the government to spend hundreds of millions to clean up contaminated facilities. Since then, the specter of biological threats has not diminished. Asked about what potentially “unstoppable” threat keeps him awake at night, then Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said, “particularly a biological threat.… A biological threat can’t be necessarily detected. It can be carried in a very small vial.”

Chertoff went on to say, “You could theoretically infect somebody and send an infected person into the country and create a biological weapon that way.”

Chertoff also noted that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has “concluded that aerosolized anthrax...is our number one bioterrorism concern.”

Col. Randall Larsen, U.S. Air Force (Ret.), national security advisor to the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), agrees that anthrax is the major biological threat, noting that once released, most biological agents that don’t infect hosts die off within hours, “except anthrax, which is why we worry about it so much.”

Larsen points to Gruinard Island in the Scottish Hebrides, where the British tested anthrax for possible use in an attack on Germany in World War II. The idea was scrapped after scientists determined that target areas would be uninhabitable for decades. In fact, Gruinard Island itself was quarantined for 48 years until the British government decontaminated the site.

Yet Larsen says the greatest—or at least most probable—biological risks, even after 9-11, do not come from terrorists. “We know for a fact that there are going to be biological attacks from Mother Nature,” he says. “There’s supposed to be a flu pandemic every 30 years. We’re overdue now. Will it be as bad as 1918 or similar to 1968? We don’t know.”

Since 9-11 and the anthrax attacks, the federal government has spent more than $41 billion to defend against bioterrorism and the prospect of pandemic disease for activities ranging from planning and information sharing to vaccines and advanced pharmaceutical research. It’s clear, however, that more needs to be done to improve the nation’s disease detection and response capabilities.

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