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


Graham says he can not discuss whether other terrorist groups also are tinkering with anthrax or other bioweapons.

Robert Kadlec, former special assistant to President Bush on biodefense — and the head of the White House group that ordered Slezak to Washington — says much of the specific information linking terrorists to weapons of mass destruction is shaky. “There’s always the risk of strategic surprise from groups that are not on anybody’s radar screen,” he says.

It no longer takes a government bioweapons program to cook up a biological weapon, as the 2001 anthrax attacks showed, adds Kadlec, now with PRTM, an international management consulting firm. Although the anthrax case has not been closed because the lead suspect committed suicide, the FBI blames the attacks on a lone government scientist, Bruce Ivins of the United States Army Research Institute for Infectious Diseases. “The Ivins case showed that this is now something that an individual can do, like the Unabomber,” Kadlec says.

We go the whole 10 yards”
Sternberg writes that the scenarios envisioned by Hooks and other DHS officials are enough to keep anyone awake at night: A terrorist in a pickup in Charlotte, spewing a biological agent through an agricultural sprayer. A small plane releasing microbes into night skies upwind of Washington, D.C. Someone spraying anthrax from a briefcase in Pennsylvania Station in New York, the busiest transit hub in the USA, with 600,000 people streaming through each day. “How many people would be infected? How far would it spread? They’d go right through there, jump on a train and be gone,” Hooks says. “Those are the kinds of things I worry about.”

The only way to know the detection system is capable of picking up such threats is to test it, says Omberg of Los Alamos. BioWatch analysts have released benign microbes upwind of likely terrorist targets and population centers. BioWatch sensors in the Washington, D.C., area have reliably picked up bacteria released near the Pentagon and Tysons Corner, a close-in office and retail hub in Virginia.

Real-world alerts, such as the tularemia incident in Washington, D.C., also have helped some cities gear up for a biological incident. Houston, even more than Washington, is home to the bacteria that cause tularemia, Francisella tularensis, which regularly triggers BioWatch alerts. “When it occurs, we go the whole 10 yards,” says David Persse, director of public health for the Houston Department of Health and Human Services. “We use it as an opportunity to do a real live drill.”

Their greatest fears
In a real biological strike, Persse says, a call from the lab director would set a range of activities in motion, beginning with a series of planned conference calls to local, state and federal officials.

Public health officials would begin taking environmental samples to confirm the findings, and others would try to plot the size and the shape of the “plume” from weather conditions and “hot filters” at detection sites. Still others would set up drug or vaccination distribution centers, prepare emergency medical services and notify the public of what had occurred.

In August, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene conducted a full-scale anthrax-response exercise, opening an antibiotic distribution site at a high school in Manhattan. In a citywide attack, health officials are prepared to open 200 such centers throughout the city, staffed by 40,000 people prepared to serve 8.3 million New Yorkers, says Isaac Weisfuse, a health department infectious-disease specialist.

This is the worst-case scenario, Weisfuse says, “a massive overflight of New York that sprinkles anthrax over the city.” He says an actual event is likely to be more limited, with a response tailored to the specifics of the threat.

Persse says Houston, too, is ready. “If something gets past us, it won’t be because we didn’t do everything we were supposed to do,” he says. “I’ll be darned if it will happen on my watch.”