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

about National Mall” href=””>National Mall in Washington, D.C., during an antiwar demonstration that drew thousands of marchers. Further tests suggested the bacteria occurred naturally and was no threat, officials said then.

When one of these detection systems goes off for an agent that we’re really concerned about, it’s going to make our stomachs sink,” Hooks says. “We have to make sure we have absolute confidence that it’s accurate. We can’t afford a miscalculation.”

Delays in processing samples worry even BioWatch proponents. Hooks says the best way to gain time would be to develop a “lab in a box” that could detect an attack and sound an alarm, from the field, within six hours, but a two-year experiment of such a device in New York ended in March when officials became concerned about its accuracy, Hooks says.

In May, DHS called for proposals for the next generation of automated systems; contracts are to be awarded in November.

An attack somewhere in the world is all but inevitable, says former senator Bob Graham, the WMD commission’s chairman. The commission’s 2008 report, A World at Risk, predicts that a nuclear or biological attack will come by 2013.

It’s an informed judgment based on interviews with over 200 people, extensive document analysis and discussions with people inside and outside the U.S.,” Graham says. “There’s a general feeling that anthrax will be the most likely agent of choice. It’s available in nature, it doesn’t require heavy science to manipulate, and it can be granulized into a form that makes it easier to disseminate” and inhaled.

Another reason anthrax is appealing to bioterrorists, he says, is that it is difficult to detect. Anthrax detonates silently, without smoke or flame. Its spores are odorless and all but invisible. Like a deadly pollen, they can float on air. “We’re looking for aerosolized anthrax,” Hooks says. “That’s the No. 1 aerosolized biological risk agent.”

A wary eye on al-Qaeda
Anthrax appears to be especially attractive to al-Qaeda, according to the WMD commission report. The terrorist network that orchestrated 9/11 had two biological stations in Qandahar, Afghanistan, that were unknown to Western intelligence services until U.S. troops found them in 2001, the report says.

It’s our information that the effort al-Qaeda started in Qandahar in the late ’90s has been relocated to Pakistan,” Graham says. “They’ve had eight years to