Viriginia wildelife organization to develop bioterror surveillance system

Published 18 August 2006

Animals in the wild are susceptible to some of the very pathogens which terrorists would use in a bioterror attack; one way, therefore, to detect the onset of such an attack would be to keep a close eye on wildlife for any suspicious occurances

We reported a few weeks ago that the Wildlife Center of Virginia was selected to develop a surveillance network designed to detect possible bioterrorism across the United States. The Wildlife Center received the $166,000, six-month contract from the Institute for Defense and Homeland Security, a consortium of university, industry, and federal research and development partners. Funding for this and other projects came through a research division of the Air Force.

Ed Clark and Patti Bright, the Wildlife Center’s director and director of veterinary medicine, resectively, say that the idea behind the project, called Project Tripwire, is simple. If there are bioterrorism or biosecurity threats in the United States, one of the first places they could be detected and analyzed is in wildlife. “If someone tries to contaminate a river or a reservoir, most likely the first victims would be geese or ducks found on the banks of those waters,” said Clark. “Finding those birds and examining them, we could rapidly get word to the people who need to know what we’re dealing with, defense and homeland security decision-makers.”

Local authorities and the network of wildlife rehabilitators — who would likely be the ones to find more birds or other animals affected by contamination — also would be notified. Right now, said the two, wildlife centers and other facilities that deal with killed or injured animals operate largely on their own. Unless a threat to humans is seen, these facilities do not report findings to groups like the Centers for Disease Control, and most often do not share data with other wildlife facilities. This is why national health officials were slow to pick up on the problems presented by the spread of West Nile disease in various bird species, Clark said.

It’s critical to those who care for wildlife, said Bright, to trace any sort of disease outbreaks, whether they affect humans or not.

We might see one or two cases of a new problem in, say, red-tailed hawks here over a year and not think it’s significant,” she said. “But if centers all over are finding those numbers, it would indicate a more serious problem. Information could be shared about the disease and perhaps treatments that various centers had found effective.”

If a system is installed and eventually creates a national database of wildlife medical information, it could prove invaluable in picking up trends, new diseases, and the spread of existing diseases.

Or the reporting system could lead to something as simple, but as useful, as warning people about a particularly bad year for ticks,” said Clark. “The threat doesn’t always have to be cholera.”

Both Clark and Bright noted that while the new system will protect humans, it’s worth doing just for what it could provide in the care and treatment of animals.

It’s a win-win thing for humans and wildlife,” said Clark, “and hopefully, that will help this system become a reality.”

-read more in Rob Hedelt’s report