- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 16, 2001

Right next to the cash register at the Army-Navy surplus store in Laurel, Md., along with the camping gear, hunting fatigues and mosquito repellent, sat a crate of dusty gas masks from some Eastern European military. "We cannot keep them in," said the store clerk, handing several to a family of four who had just emerged from a minivan.
Welcome to our new world.
We now know there are people who will not only fly airplanes into buildings, but would happily infect American children at soccer games with anthrax, mothers shopping at the mall with smallpox and dads going to work on the subway with Ebola or botulism. How do you protect yourself? Your family? For starters, take a deep breath and relax. The threshold of what terrorists will do was crossed years before Sept. 11. If the bioterrorists could have done it, cautions a new book on bioterrorism, they would have by now.
There is a two-part message in the history of bioterrorism contained in "Germs" by New York Times reporters Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg and William Broad. The first is this: Turning deadly bacteria and viruses into weapons of mass destruction is very difficult, requiring education far beyond the average post-doc, years of experience in a germ laboratory and millions of dollars in laboratories and equipment. Dozens of U.S. government exercises involving horrific scare scenarios, where thousands of patients overwhelm local hospitals with the deadly flu-like symptoms of anthrax, or exponentially spread smallpox by coughing, or simply have their organs melt from Marburg, are just that imaginary scenarios.
However, the second part of the book's message is that the bad guys are out there and still trying. What they lack is knowledge. One day, they will accomplish their goal of growing deadly germs and delivering them to infect unsuspecting innocents. So, we had better be prepared.
Perhaps the most troubling revelation in "Germs" is the availability of the knowledge. The authors detail the tempting offers coming to scientists veterans from the old Soviet Union's germ-warfare program. With those programs defunct, the scientists, some of whom are having trouble feeding their families, hear regularly from Iran, Iraq, North Korea and a host of terrorist groups seeking to pay handsomely for their expertise. Osama bin Laden and his supporters have been pursuing germ weapons for years.
The other problem is here at home. Should the United States ever be hit with biological weapons, the U.S. public-health system would be overwhelmed. Doctors, nurses and other public-health workers, who cannot tell the difference between the flu and anthrax, are in desperate need of training. Hospitals are understaffed, underequipped and lacking in surge capacity. Stockpiles of vaccines and antibiotics are low to nonexistent. Many public-health clinics are not even linked to the Internet. "Is the threat of germs weapons real or exaggerated? Our answer is both," write the authors. "If the danger is real, as we conclude it is, then the investment is much too haphazard and diffuse. We remain woefully unprepared."
The book opens with the only successful bioterrorism attack recorded in the United States. In 1984, the Rajneesh religious cult spiked the salad bars of restaurants in the Dalles, Ore. with salmonella in a failed attempt to influence local elections. It was not widely publicized, because law-enforcement officials feared copycats. The narrative moves on to a fascinating accounting of the work America's germ warriors performed in the 1950s and 1960s at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md. It is well-known that the scientists working outside Washington pioneered creating hearty germs and methods of dispensing them, until the program was shut down by President Richard Nixon. Less known are the specifics, among them a plan to infect Cuban President Fidel Castro, using a deliberately contaminated diving mask.
The authors examine the Soviet Union's vast industrial complex that was making as much as 4,500 tons that is tons of anthrax, smallpox and half a dozen other deadly diseases every year and the United States sleuthing to uncover and diffuse the threat after the breakup. They also consider the case of the Aum Shinrikyo religious cult in Japan, which released sarin gas in a Tokyo subway in 1995, killing a dozen persons and injuring 1,000 more.
"Germs" is accessible contemporary history, a good introduction to the science and political debates regarding the threat and it provides an excellent bibliography for those interested in further research. It details Iraq's program, the controversy surrounding the anthrax vaccine, and the U.S. military and the politics of germ war in Washington, with little of the sensationalism that usually surrounds this topic. The book is a warning however, that unspeakable horror can be made real, and the United States must do far more planning and preparation in case of attack.
As for the gas masks, don't bother. To do any good, one would have to be perfectly fitted and worn 24 hours a day for the rest of your life.

Tom Carter is a reporter on the foreign desk of The Washington Times.

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