United States is still vulnerable to bioterror, but is moving in the right direction

Published 11 August 2006

Experts agree technology has come a long way; some still, however, believe we are not safe from bioterrorism as new threats continue to arise – one being synthetic bioterror agents

The U.S. federal government has spent $28 million in a crash protection program to secure the country against bioterror, and the results are showing. Sites with potential as a possible terrorist target in Washington, D.C., including the World Bank and FBI headquarters have been fitted for new germ-killing air filtration systems. Louisville, Colorado-based Strion Air is responsible for the air-monitoring systems in the FBI and World Bank headquarters. These systems germ-killing ionizing rays and an electrostatic charge that causes microbes to cling together rather than stay in the air. Their other clients include Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California.

Most major cities across the country are set up for technicians to be able to sample air quality and trace any sign of deadly anthrax spores, the smallpox virus, or any other deadly bioterror agents. Experts acknowledge the progress made to defend against typical germ agents, however, are still concerned with the overall plan of the government toward a bioterror attack, especially with a new breed of synthetic bioterror agents entering the scene. “The U.S. 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.

The government has, though, stockpiled more than three million anthrax vaccines and 300 million additional vaccines to protect against smallpox. They have also trained 174,000 personnel to handle a bioterror emergency, and installed hundreds of indoor and outdoor air monitors throughout the country. “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. Vitko also said his agency along with the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control are able to detect, and respond quickly to biotrerror outbreaks, reducing possible casualties in major cities. Yet still, there are several people that still beilieve that we cannot breathe easily. One of them being Brad Smith, a senior associate at Pittsburgh’s biotechnology center. According to Smith, it was smart to go after the “low hanging fruit,” mainly smallpox and anthrax, but there is a need to do more to protect against bioterrorism.

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,” said Smith. General Services Admistration (GSA) architect Wade Belcher, however, said that retrofitting the 8,920 federal buildings would send costs into the tens of billions.

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