U.S. Scrambles to Prepare for Biological Attack

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Monday October 1 4:39 PM ET

U.S. Scrambles to Prepare for Biological Attack

By Andrea Shalal-Esa

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Heeding stern warnings the United States could face attacks involving biological or chemical weapons, state, local and federal authorities are scrambling to identify potential threats and prepare for them.

``A lot of attention is being paid to preparedness,'' said one senior representative to the 16-agency National Response Center, which handles any chemical or oil spills.

``We have a long way to go. I think everybody's doing what they can,'' said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity on Monday on the sidelines of a conference on weapons of mass destruction sponsored by Jane's Information Group.

The meeting, attended by more than 100 experts and federal, state and local authorities, came on the heels of warnings on Sunday from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other top U.S. officials that the United States was still vulnerable to attack following the Sept. 11 assault that left more than 5,700 people dead or missing.

Rumsfeld told NBC the United States knew some nations with proven links to militant groups already had developed chemical or biological agents for use as weapons, and it was possible that some of the nations would assist extremist groups in obtaining those capabilities.

Experts on Monday said agroterrorism posed an additional threat that had hardly been discussed or assessed at all, and that would be particularly difficult to avert.


Health and Human Services (news - web sites) Secretary Tommy Thompson insisted on Sunday the United States was ready to deal with a germ or chemical attack. He said eight secret U.S. government staging areas were poised to respond to such an attack.

Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating lauded the federal response but said the first people to respond to any bioterrorism incident were ill-equipped to deal with such an attack.

``At this juncture, with all due respect, I think most doctors, most nurses, most emergency management specialists at the state level really don't know what to expect or how to respond and that should be of concern to everybody,'' Keating told ABC's ``Good Morning America.''

Sen. Bill Frist (news - bio - voting record), a Tennessee Republican who commissioned a government report on preparedness for a bioterrorism attack, told ABC the probability of such an assault had increased sharply.

``The threat is real and the American people need to recognize that,'' Frist said. ``The probability is low ... but, as we saw on Sept. 11, that probability is increasing. It has increased markedly over the last several years.''

He said a General Accounting Office (news - web sites) study released last week underscored the lack of coordination among the federal, state and local agencies that would respond to such an attack, a problem officials said has been fueled by lack of funding.

Moreover, Frist said, the U.S. public health infrastructure was inadequate to handle ``the surge capacity of thousands of people coming to emergency rooms'' after any attack.


Ken Alibek, lead scientist in the Soviet Union's biowarfare program from 1988 to 1992, agreed the threat was real. ``Of course, these weapons are under significant consideration for all, or a great majority of terrorist groups,'' Alibek told Reuters.

Now a strategist and scientist with a biotech start-up, Alibek said it was ``highly probable'' that Afghanistan (news - web sites)'s ruling Taliban government had access to chemical weapons.

Tara O'Toole, deputy director of the Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies at Johns Hopkins University, told U.S. mayors on Monday local agencies would be the first line of defense in any future biological or chemical attack.

O'Toole said the agencies would be on their own for up to 48 hours after an attack, until the federal government deployed doses of emergency antibiotics from a national drug stockpile.

Joseph Foxell, head of information security at New York's Human Resources Administration, warned that extremists could also contaminate U.S. agricultural crops or livestock.

Foxell said it would be relatively cheap and easy for such groups to infect U.S. livestock with a disease such as West Nile virus (news - web sites) or barley crops with botulism, and it would be tough to monitor cropland across the country

-- Tess (none@now.com), October 02, 2001


whoops. here is the URL for that report..


-- Tess (none@now.com), October 02, 2001.

Cheap and easy for such groups to infect livestock.

Now that's a reassuring statement.

-- Uncle Fred (dogboy45@bigfoot.com), October 02, 2001.

Re: ag biowar/bioterror:

This idea goes way back -- probably to ancient times, really, but in the "modern sense" to at least WW1.

From my archives:


Experts Warn of Terrorism Via Farms

ALBUQUERQUE (AP) 2 December 1999 -- Terrorists who want to create economic chaos in the United States could try to sneak hoof and mouth disease into the nation's livestock yards or bomb corn fields with blight instead of using car bombs to inflict human carnage, according to members of Congress who've talked with agriculture experts.

That's the picture being painted in recent weeks for people such as U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and New Mexico Land Commissioner Ray Powell. Agricultural experts are telling them it's only a matter of time before terrorists try to wreck the country's food and fiber business.

Despite expert testimony, Bingaman said he's not unduly alarmed.

``The testimony raised a lot of questions in my mind about how real the threat is,'' Bingaman said in a telephone interview. ``It was interesting, but I don't think the answers we got were conclusive.''

Nonetheless, there's a newly coined word for the threat: agroterrorism.

``When we heard about this it just scared the bejabbers out of us,'' said Powell, recently returned from the Foreign Animal and Poultry Disease Advisory Committee's annual meeting. ``I was unaware of the severity of the threat, or of the potential for this happening.''

Terrorists lugging lunch coolers into the darkness near a giant Midwestern feedlot could easily swab the muzzles of a dozen steers with the contagious foot and mouth disease, the experts are saying.

Cattle feedlots, hog and chicken farms are easily accessible and often contain large numbers of animals, said agroterrorism expert and veterinary pathologist Corrie Brown of the University of Georgia, who testified at a subcommittee hearing attended by Bingaman.

``We are sitting ducks for agricultural terrorism,'' she said.

For starters, Brown said, an outbreak of foot and mouth disease or other diseases not frequently found in the United States could cost an estimated $27 billion in lost exports. Even if the prognosis for halting the disease was good, foreign countries would quickly slam the door on imports.

Another scenario the experts talk about could threaten crops. An airliner with pods of corn seed blight could fly over the nation's corn belt, spraying spores across wide swaths of countryside. The blight would be present in the soil when spring planting occurs.

If the resulting harvest is 30 percent below expected levels, the United States would be forced to import corn for the first time. Food prices would rise sharply, causing inflation. The U.S. agricultural reputation would be seriously damaged, and consumers would see price hikes for all kinds of corn-enhanced products.

And while it hasn't happened, experts already are calling it an insidious and subtle form of terrorism. Jeff Witte, assistant director for the New Mexico Department of Agriculture, said the response to such an attack on state crops would likely be led by the USDA. The state agriculture department has not drawn up an emergency response.

``Crops are different from livestock,'' Witte said. ``Any disease that shows up would probably be handled by the plant protection and quarantine division of USDA.''


U.S. could face new terror tactic: Agricultural warfare By Steve Goldstein, The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 22, 1999

WASHINGTON - With government money and attention focused on thwarting biological and chemical weapons targeted at humans, officials are now just barely awakening to an equally insidious and catastrophic threat: agroterror, or biowarfare targeting a nation's animals or crops. At the moment, the United States is highly vulnerable to such an attack and has no means to detect it or immediately thwart it, according to biowarfare and law enforcement experts.

Bioterrorism aimed at humans would look "economically pale" against an attack on the agricultural sector, said veterinary pathologist Corrie Brown, an agroterror expert at the University of Georgia. "A terrorist wishing to cause severe and reverberating financial consequences could simply introduce a foreign disease into American livestock, which would set off a chain reaction touching virtually every citizen's pocketbook," Brown said. "We are sitting ducks for agricultural terrorism," she said.

"We're incredibly vulnerable," said Drew Richardson, an FBI special assistant overseeing a hazardous-materials unit that responds to terrorist events. "I personally think we have little ability to prevent anything. We can only hope to respond."

Air Force Col. Robert Kadlec, a biowarfare expert, said agroterror "offers an adversary the means to wage a potentially subtle yet devastating form of warfare, one which would impact the political, social and economic sectors of a society and potentially of national survival itself."

Because U.S. livestock and poultry are the healthiest and most protected in the world, they are especially vulnerable to new diseases. Biowarfare specialists lay out a fictitious - but quite plausible - terrorist scenario in which the $54 billion-a-year U.S. dairy and beef industry is left in turmoil, international trade is crippled, and thousands of animals would have to be destroyed: A terrorist arrives on a flight to Washington with a foot-and- mouth virus taken from an infected cow in Africa. He drives south into the Virginia countryside and transfers the virus by hand to cows and horses along the roadside. By the time he reaches Richmond, a full-blown epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease among livestock is virtually assured. The full economic and political repercussions would take years to sort out.

Does this sound like hype? In Belgium last week, the prime minister was forced to resign in a food scandal that has cost the Belgian economy nearly $1 billion. The cancer-causing chemical dioxin was found in fat or fuel oil that contaminated batches of chicken and animal feed shipped to 1,400 poultry producers in Belgium and parts of France and the Netherlands. When the problem was discovered, Belgian chickens and chicken byproducts, then pork and beef, were quickly banned across Europe and Asia.

No investigator has voiced such a suspicion, but what if the feed was intentionally tainted?

U.S. officials said the stakes are high if a similar episode were to strike here: Annual U.S. agricultural exports total $140 billion.

"These things can take you off the world market - and then it's hard to get back on," said veterinary microbiologist David Huxsoll of Louisiana State University.

Compared with traditional bio-attacks, agroterror presents less risk to the perpetrator. "It gets the terrorists' coercive point across but it doesn't necessarily cross the threshold of killing people, and thus doesn't create the same kind of backlash," said terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman of the Rand Corp.

Microbiologist Stefan Wagener thinks a hoax is more likely than the real thing, but adds that the "ingredients and the recipes" for an agroattack are readily available "and the willingness is increasing." Wagener described scenarios in which the dairy industry could be devastated by "mad cow" disease, Asian longhorn beetles could be used to kill maple trees and cripple syrup production in New England, or soybean rust could wipe out an $8 billion-a-year industry.

"The most knowledgeable intelligence people think that an event here is likely within the next 10 years," said Thomas Frazier, an agricultural security consultant.

Animals today are reared intensively - some feedlots comprise 100,000 animals - and large herds make ideal targets for infection and rapid spread. Certain segments are especially vulnerable because of concentrated animal populations, such as poultry in the Delaware- Maryland-Virginia peninsula. About three-quarters of the swine industry is located in nine Midwestern states.

The largest recent animal disease outbreak occurred in 1983 and 1984, when avian influenza swept through Pennsylvania and neighboring states. A six-month eradication plan cost the federal government $63 million, while poultry prices for consumers jumped overall by $350 million. Avian influenza is a zoonotic disease, meaning it is transmissible to humans and thus has greater impact.

After bovine spongiform encephalopathy - or "mad cow" disease - was discovered in Great Britain in 1988, the value of British beef fell considerably. It dropped to zero when it was discovered in 1996 that there was a probable link between eating BSE-affected meat and a variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans.

Last June, virulent Newcastle disease, a foreign virus that causes bloody diarrhea and death in domestic poultry, was found in game chickens in Fresno, Calif. Rapid recognition limited the spread of the disease, but it still resulted in an estimated $400 million in lost revenue.

"Agricultural terrorism could be as easy as dropping Newcastle disease, virus-contaminated bird feces, into a feeding trough, or a shred of foot-and-mouth disease into the air intake at a large hog operation," Brown said. Biological warfare against humans demands a grasp of molecular biology, most experts say. But animal disease delivery is comparatively low-tech.

Foot-and-mouth disease is particularly worrisome because it is highly contagious, and once in the air the virus is capable of almost uncontrollable spread. The disease causes several ulcers and blisters. Humans carry the virus and can transmit it to animals, but people rarely develop symptoms of the disease itself.

A 1997 outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease among pigs in Taiwan killed the export market of fresh pork to Japan. More than eight million hogs have been slaughtered to date. The infected pig has been traced to Hong Kong, according to well-placed intelligence officials, and China is suspected of agro-sabotage.

In 1996, the karnal bunt fungus was found in wheat in Arizona, resulting in a massive quarantine that also affected parts of Texas, New Mexico and California. The disease reduces wheat yields.

Offensive biowarfare programs targeting agriculture have been identified in the former Soviet Union, Iraq and South Africa. Ken Alibek, a top official in Soviet germ warfare who defected in 1992, has provided the U.S. government with chilling details of a Soviet agroterror program. In his new book, "Biohazard," Alibek described a program code-named "Ecology" that developed variants of diseases to attacks cows, pigs and chickens. These agents were designed to be sprayed from tanks attached to Ilyushin bombers and flown low over a target along a straight line for hundreds of miles. Even if only a few animals were successfully infected, the contagious nature of the organisms ensured that the disease would wipe out livestock over a wide area in several months. Alibek's disclosures provided a wake-up call to government officials who had ignored agriculture in developing counterterrorism plans.

Floyd Horn, a top USDA official spearheading this effort, also noted ruefully that there is no deterrent in the form of punishment for agroterror, as compared with nuclear or chemical-biological attacks that kill or injure people. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the regulatory arm of the USDA, maintains a cadre of field veterinarians to monitor animal disease, but Brown and others lament budget cutbacks that reduced their numbers and said there are not nearly enough experts trained in exotic foreign diseases. "There was a national effort [on terrorism] but the USDA and agriculture got left out," said LSU's Huxsoll. "Now it's catch-up."


Also see a decent article in Scientific American several years ago; it's buried in my hardcopy files, but I suspect it could be found by searching "agriculture" and "terrorism" on www.sciam.com

-- Andre Weltman (aweltman@state.pa.us), October 02, 2001.

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