- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 25, 2002

Bioterrorism gets a lot of attention these days, with anthrax and smallpox being mentioned as the organisms most likely to be weaponized. I frequently encounter people who worry that a self-sustaining plague of some sort could easily be unleashed against the United States, and perhaps destroy the country. What are the odds?

The answer seems to be that nobody is sure, or rather that, depending on the disease, many people are sure, but of contradictory things. The ones who know what they are talking about do not take the threat lightly.

Start with anthrax. An important point, which is always clearly explained, is that anthrax is not contagious.

There are various ways of contracting the disease, most of them involving working with cattle, but these are relatively harmless. To use anthrax as a weapon, it has to be disseminated in spore form, so that people breathe it.

This means that, although it is a disease, it behaves more like a poison. This makes it different from, say, smallpox, which is contagious and can spread rapidly over large areas. As a fellow who works in counterterrorism put it, "The universal vector is a 747."

The lack of contagiousness is perhaps an advantage in its use in terrorism. Releasing anthrax in Washington would pose no threat to Baghdad. If smallpox were released in the United States, it easily could appear in Iraq, perhaps with quiet help from the Pentagon.

How much damage could anthrax do? Says the Federation of American Scientists, "According to an estimate by the U.S. Congress' Office of Technology Assessment, 100 kilograms of anthrax, released from a low-flying aircraft over a large city on a clear, calm night, could kill one to three million people." In an earlier life as a military reporter, I talked to specialists in the field who gave roughly similar guesstimates.

Think cropdusters.

The same specialists, few of whom would speak for attribution, pointed out that such an attack would require weaponized anthrax, meaning among other things that it be in a sufficiently fine form for dispersal. It isn't something amateurs can readily produce.

Estimates vary as to the percentage of people who die from inhalation anthrax once symptoms appear, but they are all above 90 percent.

Vaccines exist, but the government isn't going to try to vaccinate everyone, so this doesn't matter.

Besides, the effectiveness of a vaccine tends to depend on the degree of exposure. For example, a vaccine might be almost 100 percent effective against the smallish numbers of bacteria of a given disease spread by coughing. The numbers inhaled in a biological attack might be far greater. The Federation of American Scientists regards 10,000 spores as a lethal dose of anthrax.

Anthrax is sensitive to penicillin, though resistance can be engineered during weaponization, and to other antibiotics. When you have a million patients, this is irrelevant. The medical system would be swamped. Several specialists told me that the U.S. public health system has deteriorated to the point of being vulnerable to the stress of an epidemic.

Could it happen? Three highly qualified men, working in the field, have independently told me, "Yes."

It would be much harder than the movies make it seem and probably require the support of a national government. But, they say, it is doable.

Now, smallpox. It is no longer supposed to exist, except in a couple of labs in the United States and Russia.

Vaccination ended in 1972. The degree of residual resistance is unknown. For those under 30 years old, there isn't any.

Contagion being high, and airplanes common, once released it would presumably be everywhere, fast.


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