How prepared is the U.S. for a bioterror attack?

epidemic, not just those that are man-made. “I’m a little skeptical. Environmental sampling is something that hasn’t been proven to me,” says retired Air Force colonel Randall Larsen, director of the Commission for the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism. “The point of medical care delivery is the most important place to detect an attack.”

The anthrax attacks eight years ago, however, convinced many other biodefense experts that depending on doctors to identify cases is too risky.

Waiting for cases to turn up in emergency rooms isn’t an option,” says Richard Falkenrath, the New York Police Department’s deputy commissioner for counterterrorism. “If you wait, they’ll be mostly untreatable.”

No room for error
As the anthrax attacks unfolded in 2001, the White House ordered Slezak to Washington, D.C., to deploy experimental technology that scientists from Livermore and the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico had developed to protect athletes and spectators at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

The detection system had never been put to a real-world test. Soon, the safety of many U.S. cities would depend on it. “BioWatch has been the single most important federal-state program we’ve had in preparing the United States for a biologic event,” says Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. “It is the one thing that has brought everyone together - law enforcement, public health, the medical assets of every community. No other program has ever done that.”

The Department of Energy, which ordered the field detectors for the Olympic Games, demanded that they be made of cheap, off-the-shelf parts and that they be absolutely reliable, says Kristin Omberg of Los Alamos, who led their development. There is no room for error, she says. “The last thing you want to do is shut down the Olympics because you thought you had something you didn’t.”

The Olympics were not threatened. In the broader air sampling that began in 2003, six million tests nationwide have yielded several dozen alerts, all found to involve microbes that occur naturally in the environment, Omberg says.

In September 2005 BioWatch detected bacteria that cause tularemia — a known bioterror agent- on the