Date: February 2, 2008
Source: SF Gate
Abstract: A high-security laboratory where deadly microbes are being grown by scientists seeking defenses against terrorist attacks began operating in Livermore last week without public announcement, and opponents said Friday that they will go to federal court in an effort to close the facility down.
Built inside the closed campus of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the facility has been controversial ever since it was first proposed by homeland security officials more than five years ago. Tri-Valley CARES, the East Bay watchdog group that has long fought nuclear weapons research there, has led the fight against it with protests and legal actions.
The facility is known as a Biosafety-level 3 laboratory where highly trained workers, high-tech airlocks and extremely rigorous safety measures are required by federal rules in order to contain any of more than 40 potentially lethal disease-causing bacteria, viruses and fungi stored inside.
The National Nuclear Security Administration, an agency of the Energy Department, which oversees the Livermore site, announced Monday only that it had "granted approval" for Livermore to begin operating its new biosafety laboratory.
But the announcement did not disclose that the facility had already opened and that its scientists had begun working there the previous Friday - a fact that immediately outraged the lab's opponents.
Robert Schwartz, the staff attorney for Tri-Valley CARES, said he will file suit in federal District Court next week to shut down the facility on the grounds that the final environmental impact statement published by the lab's oversight agency was inadequate and that another supporting document was released without public hearings in violation of the Energy Department's own rules.
In October, the Ninth District Court of Appeals in San Francisco had overruled an earlier federal court decision in support of the operation of the Livermore facility. The appeals court required officials to prepare a new environmental statement, including an assessment of the possibility that a suicide attack by terrorists could breach the facility's walls and allow killer germs to spread beyond the lab.
In response, the security agency filed a document that said such an attack would be "highly unlikely," and that it "found no significant impact" on the public or the environment from operations at the germ research facility.
A spokesman for the Energy Department's nuclear security agency at Livermore told The Chronicle that its office manager approved the final revised environmental documents on Jan. 25, and that scientists began work at the lab the same day.
Asked why the press release on Monday did not disclose that the facility was already operating, the spokesman said "because we needed the time to physically copy the documents and place them in the public reading rooms as well as post them on the Web."
Eric Gard, director of the new facility, said Friday his staff is now growing live cultures of many disease-causing organisms that could be used by terrorists in enemy biological warfare attacks and for which laboratory scientists will seek to develop countermeasures. Understanding the phenomenon of resistance to antibiotics is a high priority, he said.
Among the microbes held in the laboratory are bacteria that cause such highly dangerous and often deadly diseases as bubonic plague, anthrax, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Q fever, tularemia and brucellosis or undulant fever, Gard said.
But scientists in his lab will also be researching other microbes unlikely to be used in terror attacks and that pose such major public health problems as tuberculosis, flu, and SARS, the severe acute respiratory syndrome that proved so deadly among elderly people in China, he said.
The scientists are barred by federal rules from conducting any research using germs for "potentially offensive use or purposes," nor for the production of any bio-warfare weapons, according to the Energy Department.
Continuing its opposition to the Livermore facility by Tri-valley
CARES, Marylia Kelley, the organization's executive director, charged in
a statement Friday that the lab and its sponsors "are jeopardizing the
health and safety of the local community and the surrounding Bay Area."
Live anthrax germs grown in the lab and released into the air from the
facility, even if it were only "lightly damaged" in a terrorist attack,
for example, "could result in up to 9,000 deaths, depending on wind
patterns," Kelley maintained (SF Gate, 2008).
Title: NYPD Hypes Chlorine Terror Threat
Date: February 14, 2008
Abstract: "It’s something we have to be concerned about," Commissioner Ray Kelly said of the potential of an attack using chlorine…
There has been no specific terror threat against the city involving chemicals, but New York City police recently put more emphasis on screening shipments of chlorine after learning that it has become a favored component of homemade bombs in Iraq.
A 2007 United Nations report found that at least 10 attacks in Iraq involved explosives attached to chlorine canisters.
True. Except… the chlorine strikes in Iraq didn’t really hurt anyone, per se. "The real impact of this attack is not the actual casualties, but the psychological impact," our own chemical weapons guru. Jason Sigger, noted. "Chlorine is more hype than hurt," added Major Kris Aexander — chemical weapons specialist, in his own right.
After a couple of months of research, I now have a bit of a feel for how the NYPD does its counterterror work. Frankly, I’m a little surprised to see them pushing bogus threats like chlorine. It’s not like them. So what’s this all about?
Kelly said the NYPD has been lobbying the Department of Homeland
Security to draft stricter regulations requiring chlorine vendors to verify the legitimacy of their customers.
The department sent federal officials a copy of the videotape and "asked them to include strict ‘know-your-customer’ rules," Kelly said…
In the video, an intelligence detective describes how in June 2007 the department fabricated a water purification company, complete with a mailing address, Web site and a phony contract with the city to clean up a polluted creek in Brooklyn.
Investigators, after using the Internet to identify local vendors, used a credit card to place an order with one unnamed firm for three
100-pound cylinders of chlorine.
No one ever asked for identification and the purchase required little human interaction, police said.
The video includes surveillance footage of a truck delivering the canisters on a rain-slicked Brooklyn street lined with warehouses. At the time, hazardous material teams were on standby to respond to any accidents, police said.
A couple of educated guesses, then: (a) this was an opportunity to tweak the hapless feds; (b) New York has a program called "Operation Nexus," in which detectives visit local businesses that might sell hazardous materials, and tell the owners what to look out for. Maybe this is a way to put some teeth into the project (Wired, 2008).
Title: Will A Pandemic Bring Down Civilisation?
Date: April 5, 2008
Source: New Scientist
Abstract: Will a pandemic bring down civilisation?
FOR years we have been warned that a pandemic is coming. It could be flu, it could be something else. We know that lots of people will die. As terrible as this will be, on an ever more crowded planet, you can't help wondering whether the survivors might be better off in some ways. Wouldn't it be easier to rebuild modern society into something more sustainable if, perish the thought, there were fewer of us.
Yet would life ever return to something resembling normal after a devastating pandemic? Virologists sometimes talk about their nightmare scenarios - a plague like ebola or smallpox - as "civilisation ending". Surely they are exaggerating. Aren't they?
Many people dismiss any talk of collapse as akin to the street-corner prophet warning that the end is nigh. In the past couple of centuries, humanity has innovated its way past so many predicted plagues, famines and wars - from Malthus to Dr Strangelove - that anyone who takes such ideas seriously tends to be labeled a doom-monger.
There is a widespread belief that our society has achieved a scale, complexity and level of innovation that make it immune from collapse. "It's an argument so ingrained both in our subconscious and in public discourse that it has assumed the status of objective reality," writes biologist and geographer Jared Diamond of the University of California, Los Angeles, author of the 2005 book Collapse. "We think we are different."
Ever more Vulnerable
A growing number of researchers, however, are coming to the conclusion that far from becoming ever more resilient, our society is becoming ever more vulnerable (see page 30). In a severe pandemic, the disease might only be the start of our problems.
No scientific study has looked at whether a pandemic with a high mortality could cause social collapse - at least none that has been made public. The vast majority of plans for weathering a pandemic all fail even to acknowledge that crucial systems might collapse, let alone take it into account.
There have been many pandemics before, of course. In 1348, the Black Death killed about a third of Europe's population. Its impact was huge, but European civilisation did not collapse. After the Roman empire was hit by a plague with a similar death rate around AD 170, however, the empire tipped into a downward spiral towards collapse. Why the difference? In a word: complexity.
In the 14th century, Europe was a feudal hierarchy in which more than 80 per cent of the population were peasant farmers. Each death removed a food producer, but also a consumer, so there was little net effect. "In a hierarchy, no one is so vital that they can't be easily replaced," says Yaneer Bar-Yam, head of the New England Complex Systems Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "Monarchs died, but life went on."
The Roman empire was also a hierarchy, but with a difference: it had a huge urban population - not equalled in Europe until modern times - which depended on peasants for grain, taxes and soldiers. "Population decline affected agriculture, which affected the empire's ability to pay for the military, which made the empire less able to keep invaders out," says anthropologist and historian Joseph Tainter at Utah State University in Logan. "Invaders in turn further weakened peasants and agriculture."
A high-mortality pandemic could trigger a similar result now, Tainter says. "Fewer consumers mean the economy would contract, meaning fewer jobs, meaning even fewer consumers. Loss of personnel in key industries would hurt too."
Bar-Yam thinks the loss of key people would be crucial. "Losing pieces indiscriminately from a highly complex system is very dangerous," he says. "One of the most profound results of complex systems research is that when systems are highly complex, individuals matter."
One of the most profound results is that when systems are highly complex, individuals matter
The same conclusion has emerged from a completely different source: tabletop "simulations" in which political and economic leaders work through what would happen as a hypothetical flu pandemic plays out. "One of the big 'Aha!' moments is always when company leaders realise how much they need key people," says Paula Scalingi, who runs pandemic simulations for the Pacific Northwest economic region of the US. "People are the critical infrastructure."
Especially vital are "hubs" - the people whose actions link all the rest. Take truck drivers. When a strike blocked petrol deliveries from the UK's oil refineries for 10 days in 2000, nearly a third of motorists ran out of fuel, some train and bus services were cancelled, shops began to run out of food, hospitals were reduced to running minimal services, hazardous waste piled up, and bodies went unburied. Afterwards, a study by Alan McKinnon of Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, UK, predicted huge economic losses and a rapid deterioration in living conditions if all road haulage in the UK shut down for just a week.
What would happen in a pandemic when many truckers are sick, dead or too scared to work? Even if a pandemic is relatively mild, many might have to stay home to care for sick family or look after children whose schools are closed. Even a small impact on road haulage would quickly have severe knock-on effects.
One reason is just-in-time delivery. Over the past few decades, people who use or sell commodities from coal to aspirin have stopped keeping large stocks, because to do so is expensive. They rely instead on frequent small deliveries.
Cities typically have only three days' worth of food, and the old saying about civilisations being just three or four meals away from anarchy is taken seriously by security agencies such as MI5 in the UK. In the US, plans for dealing with a pandemic call for people to keep three weeks' worth of food and water stockpiled. Some planners think everyone should have at least 10 weeks' worth. How long would your stocks last if shops emptied and your water supply dried up? Even if everyone were willing, US officials warn that many people might not be able to afford to stockpile enough food.
Hospitals rely on daily deliveries of drugs, blood and gases. "Hospital pandemic plans fixate on having enough ventilators," says public health specialist Michael Osterholm at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, who has been calling for broader preparation for a pandemic. "But they'll run out of oxygen to put through them first. No hospital has more than a two-day supply." Equally critical is chlorine for water purification plants.
Hospital pandemic plans fixate on having enough ventilators. But they'll run out of oxygen first.It's not only absentee truck drivers that could cripple the transport system; new drivers can be drafted in and trained fairly quickly, after all. Trucks need fuel, too. What if staff at the refineries that produce it don't show up for work?
"We think that if we can make people feel safe about coming to work, we'll have about 25 per cent staff absences if we get a flu pandemic like the one in 1918," says Jon Lay, head of global emergency preparedness for ExxonMobil. If that happens, then by postponing non-essential tasks, and making sure crucial suppliers also hang tough, "we can maintain the supply of products that are critical to society".
Some models, however, suggest absenteeism sparked by a 1918-type pandemic could cut the workforce by half at the peak of a pandemic wave. "If we have 50 per cent absences, it's a different story," says Lay, who says his company has not modelled the impact of absence on that scale. And what if a pandemic is worse than 1918?
All the companies that provide the critical infrastructure of modern society - energy, transport, food, water, telecoms - face similar problems if key workers fail to turn up. According to US industry sources, one electricity supplier in Texas is teaching its employees "virus avoidance techniques" in the hope that they will then "experience a lower rate of flu onset and mortality" than the general population.
The fact is that the best way for people to avoid the virus will be to stay home. But if everyone does this - or if too many people try to stockpile supplies after a crisis begins - the impact of even a relatively minor pandemic could quickly multiply.
Planners for pandemics tend to overlook the fact that modern societies are becoming ever more tightly connected, which means any disturbance can cascade rapidly through many sectors. For instance, many businesses - including New Scientist's parent company - have contingency plans that count on some people working online from home. Models show there won't be enough bandwidth to meet demand, says Scalingi.
And what if the power goes off? This is where the complex interdependencies could prove disastrous. Refineries make diesel fuel not only for trucks but also for the trains that deliver coal to electricity generators, which now usually have only 20 days' reserve supply, Osterholm notes. Coal-fired plants supply 30 per cent of the UK's electricity, 50 per cent of the US's and 85 per cent of Australia's.
The coal mines need electricity to keep working. Pumping oil through pipelines and water through mains also requires electricity. Making electricity depends largely on coal; getting coal depends on electricity; they all need refineries and key people; the people need transport, food and clean water. If one part of the system starts to fail, the whole lot could go. Hydro and nuclear power are less vulnerable to disruptions in supply, but they still depend on highly trained staff.
With no electricity, shops will be unable to keep food refrigerated even if they get deliveries. Their tills won't work either. Many consumers won't be able to cook what food they do have. With no chlorine, water-borne diseases could strike just as it becomes hard to boil water. Communications could start to break down as radio and TV broadcasters, phone systems and the internet fall victim to power cuts and absent staff. This could cripple the global financial system, right down to local cash machines, and will greatly complicate attempts to maintain order and get systems up and running again.
Even if we manage to struggle through the first few weeks of a pandemic, long-term problems could build up without essential maintenance and supplies. Many of these problems could take years to work their way through the system. For instance, with no fuel and markets in disarray, how do farmers get the next harvest in and distributed?
As a plague takes hold, some countries may be tempted to close their borders. But quarantine is not an option any more. "These days, no country is self-sufficient for everything," says Lay. "The worst mistake governments could make is to isolate themselves." The port of Singapore, a crucial shipping hub, plans to close in a pandemic only as a last resort, he says. Yet action like this might not be enough to prevent international trade being paralysed as other ports close for fear of contagion or for lack of workers, as ships' crews sicken and exporters' assembly lines grind to a halt without their own staff, power, transport or fuel and supplies.
Quarantine is not an option any more. These days, no country is self-sufficient. Osterholm warns that most medical equipment and 85 per cent of US pharmaceuticals are made abroad, and this is just the start. Consider food packaging. Milk might be delivered to dairies if the cows get milked and there is fuel for the trucks and power for refrigeration, but it will be of little use if milk carton factories have ground to a halt or the cartons are an ocean away.
"No one in pandemic planning thinks enough about supply chains," says Osterholm. "They are long and thin, and they can break." When Toronto was hit by SARS in 2003, the major surgical mask manufacturers sent everything they had, he says. "If it had gone on much longer they would have run out."
The trend is for supply chains to get ever longer, to take advantage of economies of scale and the availability of cheap labour. Big factories produce goods more cheaply than small ones, and they can do so even more cheaply in countries where labour is cheap.
Lay points to recent hurricanes in the US and the 2005 fire at the Buncefield oil depot in the UK as examples of severe disruptions to the normal supply chain. In all of these instances, he points out, supplies from refineries were maintained. But those disasters were localised, and help could come from unaffected places nearby.
Disaster planners usually focus on single-point events of this kind: industrial accidents, hurricanes or even a nuclear attack. But a pandemic happens everywhere at the same time, rendering many such plans useless. "There are numerous assumptions behind our conclusions," Lay admits. "If they prove to be flawed, we could struggle."
Planners focus on single-point events like the Buncefield fire, but a pandemic happens everywhere.
The main assumption is how serious a pandemic could be. Many national plans are based on mortality rates from the mild 1957 and 1968 pandemics. "No government pandemic plans consider the possibility that the death rate might be higher than in 1918," says Tim Sly of Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada.
Even a rerun of 1918 could be bad enough. In a 2006 study, economist Warwick McKibbin of the Lowry Institute for International Policy in Sydney, Australia, and colleagues based their "worst-case" scenario on the same death rate as in 1918. The result, their model predicts, would be 142 million deaths worldwide, leading to a massive global economic slowdown that would wipe out 12.6 per cent of global GDP.
This scenario assumes around 3 three per cent of those who fall ill die. Of all the people known to have caught H5N1 bird flu so far, 63 per cent have died. "It seems negligent to assume that H5N1, if it goes pandemic, will necessarily become less deadly," says Sly. And flu is far from the only viral threat we face.
It is negligent to assume that H5N1 bird flu, if it goes pandemic, will become less deadly.The ultimate question is this: what if a pandemic does have huge knock-on effects? What if many key people die, and many global balancing acts are disrupted? Could we get things up and running again? "Much would depend on the extent of the population decline," says Tainter. "Possibilities range from little effect to a mild recession to a major depression to a collapse" (New Scientist, 2008).
Date: August 3, 2008
Source: Washington Post
Abstract: In the past seven years, the federal government has spent more than $57 billion to shore up the nation's bioterrorism defenses, stockpiling drugs, ringing more than 30 American cities in a network of detectors and boosting preparedness at hospitals.
The result: modest gains, at best, toward preventing another attack similar to the one in 2001, in which anthrax bacteria killed five people and sickened 17, experts and government officials agree.
"The threat of bioterrorism has not subsided," while the challenge of predicting or preventing a major biological attack remains "daunting," Robert Hooks, the Homeland Security Department's deputy assistant secretary for weapons of mass destruction and biodefense, told a House panel two weeks ago.
"The potential for something to happen is much greater now than it was in 2001, simply because of developments of technology and education," D.A. Henderson, who was principal science adviser for public health preparedness to then-Health and Human Services secretary Tommy G. Thompson, said in an interview.
The government has not developed a general-use anthrax vaccine. A new generation of sensors that would sniff out threats more quickly has been delayed. A coordinated plan to respond to a widespread outbreak still doesn't exist. And the rapid increase in the number of researchers registered to work with biological agents, now 15,000 people, has come without enough oversight.
"We may be putting dangerous pathogens in the hands of people who would deliberately cause harm. We may also be putting them in the hands of people who may inadvertently or unintentionally take steps to put large numbers of people at risk," said Elisa D. Harris, senior research scholar at the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland.
One cause is the government's difficulty organizing itself. Since 2003, for instance, management of both the stockpile of medications that would be used in a disaster and the National Disaster Medical System, the federal government's disaster health-care responders, has been shifted from HHS to DHS and back.
A significant bright spot, many agree, is the dramatic improvement in government preparations to respond to threats such as smallpox, botulism, plague and other biological agents. The Strategic National Stockpile, an emergency cache of critical pharmaceuticals that can be sent within 12 hours to counter outbreaks, has been greatly expanded, said Michael T. Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.
The stockpile, details of which are classified, has 60 million treatment courses of antibiotics for anthrax and pneumonic plague, according to a senior federal official with responsibility for bioterrorism response. About 300 million doses of smallpox vaccine can also be shipped.
"If smallpox returned today, we could contain it and minimize the danger very quickly. I could not have said that in 2001," Osterholm said. The anthrax attack "was a very important event in the world of bioterrorism preparedness," he added. "It did finally wake people up to what bioterrorism could do in this country and in the world."
The Bush administration has dedicated $57 billion for bioweapons, prevention and defense through fiscal 2009, according to the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. That includes a $9 billion increase next year for research and development of countermeasures such as vaccines.
The administration has tried to get its primary vaccine program,
BioShield, back on track. The HHS in 2006 killed the two-year-old
program's largest component, an $877.5 million contract to develop a new
anthrax vaccine and last year canceled a project to develop radiation
Officials say that the government is retooling efforts to encourage drug
companies to invest in BioShield projects, and that the effort is
paying off in new antitoxins for anthrax and botulism. Science is also
being advanced by a dramatic expansion of federally funded university
research, up from a handful of laboratories a decade ago to 400 today.
Still, the nation has seen few breakthroughs such as an anthrax vaccine that could safely inoculate Americans and end what many scientists consider a top-tier threat. Some analysts worry that the U.S. research effort is increasing the risk of abuse by a malevolent or unwitting insider, whether or not bioweapons expert Bruce E. Ivins turns out to among them.
The White House last fall refocused its years-long effort to meet the "big three" of bioterrorism preparedness needs: medical stockpiling, biosurveillance and mass casualty response.
On Oct. 18, the president signed a new homeland security directive to chart a fresh strategy for public health and medical preparedness, which included creating a panel at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to review biosurveillance efforts.
Early detection is critical because the impact of a bioweapons attack can spiral out of control in the hours or days it takes to discover it. Administration defenders have praised BioWatch, a five-year-old, $400 million effort to install sensors in more than 30 U.S. cities to detect the airborne release of biological warfare agents such as anthrax spores, plague bacteria and smallpox virus.
All 50 states now can receive urgent disease reports around-the-clock and conduct year-round surveillance for diseases such as influenza, according to the senior federal bioterrorism official. The number of state and local public health laboratories that can detect biological agents has increased from 83 to 110, and the number that can respond to chemical agents has climbed from zero to 47, said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the FBI's anthrax investigation.
Critics say big gaps remain. BioWatch remains of limited use, because it takes 10 to 34 hours for samples taken by the machines to be analyzed. A new generation of sensors that can detect lethal agents within four to six hours was scheduled for pilot deployment in 2008 but now is not expected until 2010 or 2011.
Meanwhile, cities such as New York are pressing the federal government to spend tens of millions of dollars more on interim technology. Other analysts say it makes more sense to spend money to improve data collection and reporting by hospitals and clinics.
"There are a lot of fabulous new tools out there that could be turned to biosurveillance, but government hasn't figured out how to marshal them, who should control them or what to do," said Tara O'Toole, director of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
Washington also has sent more than $8 billion in grants to hospitals and public health agencies since 2002. The money reached more than 80 percent of 5,000 U.S. hospitals and funded 9,500 exercises in 2006 alone.
But the nation still lacks plans and an organized structure to respond to a massive disease outbreak with thousands of victims. "The system still isn't there," Osterholm said. Hospitals strain every day with overcrowded emergency rooms, while this summer's outbreak from salmonella infection underscores the challenges facing public health experts to trace outbreaks of even food-borne illness, he said.
It will do little good for the federal government to distribute stockpiled medications if health-care workers aren't there to dispense them, Osterholm said, or for the federal biosensor alarm system to ring if hospitals lack beds, nurses and tracking systems to manage patients.
"If we know the system is not going to work with everyone having a hospital bed, a nurse and all the modern medicines they need, then we better damned well prepare for that," he said.
At Congress's direction, DHS this year is developing a new National Biosurveillance Integration Center to coordinate federal efforts, but faces "big challenges" to being operational next month, Hooks said. Only six of 11 federal agencies have agreed to participate, and only one has completed a funding and staffing plan.
Henderson said such developments show that Washington is better prepared than it was in 2001 but is enmeshed in dangerous bureaucratic habits.
"There's a kind of complacency," he said. "You don't have the motivation
now as they did right after 9/11 and the anthrax attack, and so, they
can look at it now and say, 'Well, nothing has happened. We don't have
to worry about it.' And they can sleep at night" (Washington Post, 2008).
Date: August 4, 2008
Source: Wall Street Journal
Abstract: So what has the U.S. learned since anthrax was sent through the mail in 2001?
It is cheap to do. It is easy to pull off. It is tough to respond to. And for all of those reasons, it remains one of the top concerns of security officials across the country, and one of their greatest frustrations.
New York City is at the forefront of confronting the bioterror threat, with one of the most advanced detection and response systems in the country. But the problem "is not fixed in New York or anywhere else," says Richard Falkenrath, the city's counterterror chief and a former senior White House security aide.
The federal government has spent nearly $50 billion on programs to fight bioterrorism since 2001. Still, experience in New York City and elsewhere underscores the enduring difficulty of contending with this type of terror attack. Experts in the field say that the nation's ability to detect biological weapons is still inadequate in most locales, as is its ability to distribute drugs to the population once the lethal agent is identified. Hospitals warn that the volume of casualties from an effective attack could simply overwhelm facilities.
"We've made very little progress in [any] of those very big areas," says Dr. Tara O'Toole, director of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is constructing a center that will merge biothreat information from federal agencies and eventually connect it with localities. The department has also been building its BioWatch system, which deploys equipment to sniff out key deadly pathogens from the air.
William O. Jenkins Jr. of the Government Accountability office said in congressional testimony that it isn't clear that the new center will be able to perform as expected when it is launched next month. He also found that the BioWatch system requires up to 34 hours to detect and confirm a pathogen. While the department is trying to develop an interim solution to expedite detection, a faster system isn't scheduled for completion until 2010, he said.
Bioterror experts warn that an attack is only going to become easier to launch as the same work that has spawned countless new biotech medical treatments continues to advance. "Unfortunately, there's going to be a dark side," says Randall Larsen, Director of the Institute for Homeland Security, a Virginia-based think tank. The biotech revolution, he said, is making it "easier for nonstate actors to develop sophisticated bioweapons."
With easier access to fatal pathogens, it may be impossible to uncover preparations for an attack, leading government officials to focus more on lessening the impact of an attack than preventing one.
New York is using the next generation of sensors that the federal BioWatch program hopes to distribute nationwide by 2010. The city has been asking the federal government for more sensors. Most of the devices require up to 34 hours to detect a lethal bug, but about a half dozen new machines can detect an agent more quickly.
Yet New York remains at the leading edge. In most other cities, there was little federal guidance about which systems to buy, which led to a patchwork of often ineffective programs. The BioWatch system is active in more than 30 cities.
In New York, if a lethal agent is detected, the city plans to immediately distribute drugs to counter the bug. The federal government has worked to develop a national stockpile of drugs to deploy anywhere in the country, and biosecurity experts give the program high marks, saying that it can get the drugs to an affected region quickly. The problem, they say, is getting the medication out of the airport, where the federal government leaves it, and into communities.
If a biological attack were to happen tomorrow, said Lawrence O. Gostin, a bioterrorism expert at Johns Hopkins and Georgetown Universities, the best advice the government could give would be for people to stay where they are. He adds: "I have no idea how they would get to my suburban Maryland neighborhood and get me an antiviral or antibiotic."
And biosecurity specialists lament that little progress has been made even on the most public of possible biological threats: countering an anthrax attack. Seven years after the nation contended with just such an attack, an $877 million effort to develop a new anthrax vaccine has failed; there's no quick way to test patients for an anthrax infection; and efforts to develop a drug to counter anthrax's lethal chemicals haven't produced much.
"We need to seriously reconsider the approach we've been taking,"
said Alan Pearson, Director of the Biological and Chemical Weapons
Control Program at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. He
advocates a greater focus on prevention (Wall Street Journal, 2008).
government biodefense scientist Bruce Ivins took his own life last week, the
2001 anthrax case took another stunning turn. The FBI say it’s ready to reveal
its evidence against Ivins this week. The case may close. Or it may not.
But behind all the drama is an intense debate over whether the U.S. — after seven years and more than $50 billion spent — is any better prepared for a bioterror attack. Critics say the U.S. remains far too vulnerable. Others say progress has been real, if slow — and that the threat is devilishly complex.
This hour, On Point: the anthrax investigation, and the biodefense
You can join the conversation. Have
you followed the anthrax case? What lessons should we draw from the new
revelations? Are you confident that the U.S. government is prepared for another
attack? Tell us what you think.
Joining us from Washington is Siobhan Gorman, intelligence and
homeland security correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. Her piece in
yesterday’s paper looked at the
persistence of the bioterrorism threat.
From Minneapolis, we’re joined by Michael Osterholm, director of
the Center for Infectious Disease Research and
Policy at the University of Minnesota. He sits on
the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity. From
2001 to 2005, he was advisor to the Secretary of Health and Human Services.
Joining us from Annapolis, Maryland, is Tara O’Toole. She’s CEO and director of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and a professor of medicine and public health at the University of Pittsburgh. From 1993 to 1997, she served as Assistant Secretary of Energy for Environment Safety and Health.
And with us from Washington is Alan Pearson, director of the Biological and Chemical Weapons
Control Program at the Center for Arms
Control and Non-Proliferation. In recent years, he’s worked at the Department
of Homeland Security to streamline and refine the bioterror spending (On Point Radio, 2008).
Title: False Flag Cyanide Attack Planned For The
Date: August 14, 2008
Abstract: “We don’t have terrorist attacks here, we don’t have suicide bombers and I think that’s what people think of when they think about terrorism,” the FBI’s Jim Davis told Denver’s 9News last month. “There is clearly enough activity for us to be very busy in addressing potential threats.” Davis eluded to the usual suspects, specifically anarchists and protesters who will gather during the upcoming DNC. “I think there is some possibility of large scale protests, people who may have it in their mind to disrupt this convention.”
Is it possible anarchists or other terrorists – specifically, Muslims who hate us for our freedom — will disrupt the DNC with a cloud of cyanide gas? It appears the corporate media is preparing us for some sort of terrorist event during the convention.
From the Associated Press:
About a pound of highly toxic sodium cyanide was found in a hotel room where a man’s body was discovered, authorities said Wednesday.
The Denver medical examiner was still awaiting test results to determine what killed Saleman Abdirahman Dirie, 29, of Ottawa. Police said they do not suspect foul play, and the FBI said there was no apparent connection to terrorism.
Saleman Abdirahman Dirie was a member of the Canadian Somali community and manager of Ottawa’s Somali Center for Family Services. Police in Denver and the FBI may “not suspect foul play” and flatly declare that the case has no “apparent connection to terrorism,” however the mere mention of a dead man in possession of a large amount of sodium cyanide and hailing from a country that is predominately Muslim — in fact, Sunni Muslim, just like al-Qaeda — will no doubt result in a lot of hysterical speculation in the corporate media, regardless of what the FBI says at this point.
“Cyanide is a fast-acting chemical used in manufacturing, metallurgy and pest extermination that, when inhaled or ingested, prevents the body from processing oxygen. It can also be mixed with certain acids to produce extremely lethal cyanide gas, according to the Department of Justice,” adds the San Francisco Chronicle. “Investigators have not said why Dirie had cyanide or whether he worked in a job that would have involved using it. They also have not said how long Dirie had been in Denver or whether anyone had accompanied him.”
As should be expected, the neocon bloggers have wasted precious little time. Over at the Free Republic and Little Green Footballs, we learn that a reader “points out a blog post from July with a comment by a Somali with the same name as the man found dead in Denver with a large amount of possible cyanide.” According to the post at LGF, Abdirahman Dirie, or somebody with that name, threatened to kill Somali Christians.
Next up, the neocon advocate of concentration camp internment for Muslims and other supposed miscreants, Michelle Malkin. She is irritated by the media declaring there is no evidence of terrorism. She then links to the above post at LGF.
“This has all the earmarks of an Islamic terrorist planning to release cyanide gas at the Democratic National Party in Denver,” writes another neocon blogger. “While we may not be privy to the ongoing investigation, it seems quite obvious to us that this guy was a terrorist. But, with the FBI working on the case, one does wonder if it will just be swept under the rug…”
In fact, if anything, it has all the earmarks of a possible false flag attack that will be blamed on Muslims, as the crop of supposed Muslim terrorists of the recent past turn out to be mentally deficient patsies and government informers and operatives.
No doubt trouble is expected in Denver, as the Colorado Army National Guard is in the process of converting “a private Denver university campus into a restricted military lodging area during the Democratic National Convention in August” and plans “to rent more than 500 rooms around the Denver area,” according to the Colorado Independent.
Moreover, the Independent reported on July 30 that federal and state law enforcement officials will increase intelligence operations at a “fusion center” during the Democratic National Convention, “overseeing an information war room that will be staffed around the clock with analysts who access a dozen databases while receiving reports of ‘suspicious activity’ — activity that some civil libertarians claim could be nothing more than engaging in anti-war protests or photographing federal facilities that could be targeted for terrorist attack.”
At this point, it remains to be seen if the death of a Somali Muslim, who allegedly threatened Christians, and the highly unusual presence of a pound sodium cyanide at the crime scene will pan out into a larger plot against the DNC.
A top US counter-terrorism official has warned of a heightened risk of an Al Qaeda attack during the upcoming US election season with the terrorist outfit exploiting recent political turmoil in Pakistan to strengthen its sanctuary there.
While intelligence officials are unaware of specific plans for attacks inside the US, they expect an increase in threats in the run-up to US elections, Ted Gistaro, the national intelligence officer for trans-national threats, has claimed in an assessment.
But although Al Qaeda may use the election as an excuse for an attack, there is no evidence that Osama bin Laden hopes to tilt the race in favor of either of the two major presidential candidates, Gistaro, an Al Qaeda expert, said in a speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy Tuesday.In other words, the CIA has no plan to “tilt the race in favor of either of the two major presidential candidates” because there is no difference between the two selectees (Infowars, 2008).
Title: Bio Terror 'Next Threat' For US
Date: October 31, 2008
Source: Sky News
Abstract: Nuclear and biological terrorism is the emerging threat the next US President should focus on, the US security chief has told Sky News.
In an exclusive interview, homeland security secretary Michael Chertoff said sources of radioactive and biological materials must be properly secured "at all costs".
He warned terrorists are actively seeking to acquire such materials.
Mr Chertoff said he did not think a weapon of mass destruction, like a biological or nuclear bomb, was a danger that could be just months away.
But he warned: "It may be years away and we can't afford to waste this time waiting for that event to happen.
"We've got to stay ahead of the issue of weapons of mass destruction, if not for our own benefit, then for the benefit of our children."
His comments echo those of the British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, who told Sky News last year that intelligence suggested terrorists were trying to get their hands on materials and know how to make a dirty bomb.
Last November, the security services in Slovakia arrested three men attempting to sell enriched uranium on the black market.
Mr Chertoff said it must be a priority to secure sites in rogue countries where dangerous materials may get into the wrong hands.
He said: "It is also important to secure our own radioactive material.
"Medical facilities, for example, have radioactive material, which they use for medical purposes. We're in the process of securing those in the United States."
Domestic materials 'being secured'
Mr Chertoff also warned nuclear proliferation was a major concern.
He said: "Obviously, the more countries that get the (nuclear) bomb, the greater the likelihood that they will deliberately or inadvertently pass the bomb into the hands of dangerous people."
But the security chief said biological threats posed the most pressing and "challenging issue" to security, "because the raw material exists in nature".
He said: "The internet and the proliferation of knowledge is an increasing challenge.
"It will require the whole world to make sure people aren't setting up laboratories where they're beginning to fashion biological weapons."
Mr Chertoff told Sky News the intent of terrorists to get their hands on such weapons was clear.
He pointed to the discovery of al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan, where experiments with biological and chemical agents had taken place, saying: "Al Qaeda would, if they could, use these types of weapons.
"It is not a lack of intent, it is a lack of capability. But I don't think that we want to wait in addressing these issues and that's why this is a very hot priority for us." (Sky News, 2008).Title: Bioterror Threat Is Increasing, Study Says
Date: November 30, 2008
Source: LA Times
Abstract: The threat of biological terrorism is growing, according to a congressionally ordered study that calls for aggressive defenses on par with those used to prevent nuclear terrorism.
Due for release this
week, a draft of the study warns that bioterrorists might one day make
synthetic versions of killers such as Ebola, or germs genetically
modified to resist vaccines and antibiotics.
The bipartisan report says that the Bush administration has devoted insufficient resources to the threat and that U.S. policies have at times impeded international biodefense efforts.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has promoted the proliferation of domestic labs holding the most virulent pathogens, the report says. The number of such "high-containment" labs in the United States has tripled since 2001, yet officials have not implemented adequate safeguards to prevent deadly germs from being stolen or accidentally released, it says.
"The rapid growth in the number of such labs in recent years has created new safety and security risks which must be managed," the draft report says.
The report is the product of a six-month study by the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction and Terrorism, which Congress created in the spring. Drafts of chapters pertaining to bioterrorism were obtained by the Washington Post.
The document cites progress in many areas of biodefense since the deadly anthrax attacks of 2001, including major investments in research, stockpiling of drugs and development of a network of sensors designed to detect airborne viruses and bacteria.
The Bush administration has spent more than $20 billion on such countermeasures, far more than any of its predecessors.
But the report says the next administration must do much more to prevent pathogens from falling into the wrong hands. Though politicians often warn about the dangers of nuclear terrorism, a serious biological attack would be easier to accomplish and deserves high priority as well, it says.
"The more probable threat of bioterrorism should be put on
equal footing with the more devastating threat of nuclear terrorism,"
the draft says. It calls on the Obama administration to develop a
comprehensive approach to preventing bioterrorism and "banish the
'too-hard-to-do' mentality that has hobbled previous efforts" (LA Times, 2008).
Title: Is A Bioterrorism Attack In The U.S. Imminent?
Date: December 2, 2008
Source: Scientific American
Abstract: As India picks up the pieces of last week's deadly terrorist attacks in Mumbai, a congressional study warns of a possible bioterror strike in the U.S. by 2013. In fact, biological weapons–anthrax, Ebola, influenza, and other pathogens–are more likely than nuclear weapons to be used to initiate the attack, according to CNN, which obtained an early copy of the study, which officially released today by the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism.
Former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, chair of the panel created earlier this year to probe the possibility of terrorist hits in the U.S., told CNN that if such an attack were to occur, it would be "9/11 times 10 or a hundred in terms of the number of people who would be killed." Biological weapons are a more likely choice than nukes, he said, because their ingredients are easier to obtain and such an attack "would be easier to carry out."
The commission's recommendations, according to CNN: the U.S. government must impose tight security at U.S. labs with such poisons on hand (a measure that might have helped prevent the 2001 anthrax mailings or at least helped law enforcement catch the culprit sooner), strengthen international treaties so that other countries also improve safeguards, enhance surveillance to detect early signs of an attack, and develop better ways to track the source of any biological weapons.
Some scientists have also been pushing for the U.S. to vaccinate millions of citizens in advance of an attack, while others say only doctors, paramedics, nurses and other first-line responders should be vaccinated to help limit damage in the event of a bioterror attack. Critics, however, caution that widespread vaccination might not be effective if a disease-causing pathogen mutates and becomes resistant to a vaccine.
Though he stressed the threat of a bioterror attack, Graham did not rule out a nuke strike, noting that as more countries develop their nuclear arsenal it becomes more likely that terrorists will also get their hands on the technology and materials. The bipartisan report faults the Bush administration for failing to devote enough resources toward preventing such an attack, the Washington Post reported Sunday.
The Post adds that, according to the report, U.S. policies have at times "impeded international biodefense efforts while promoting the rapid growth of a network of domestic laboratories possessing the world's most dangerous pathogens." According to the New York Times, the report also singled out Pakistan, which has nuclear capability, as a security priority for the incoming Obama administration. Not surprising given that the Mumbai terrorist attacks are believed to have been executed by Pakastani militants (Scientific American, 2008).
Title: Biological Terror Attack Likely By 2013, Panel Says
Date: December 2, 2008
Abstract: Terrorists are likely to use a weapon of mass destruction somewhere in the world in the next five years, a blue-ribbon panel assembled by Congress has concluded.
They are more likely to use a biological weapon than a nuclear one -- and the results could be devastating, the chairman of the commission told CNN.
"The consequences of a biological attack are almost beyond comprehension. It would be 9/11 times 10 or a hundred in terms of the number of people who would be killed," former Sen. Bob Graham said.
He cited the flu virus that killed millions of people in 1918 as an example.
"Today it is still in the laboratory, but if it should get out and into the hands of scientists who knew how to use it for a violent purpose, we could have multiple times the 40 million people who were killed 100 years ago," he said. Watch how officials worry about a biological terror attack »
The U.S. government "needs to move more aggressively to limit" the spread of biological weapons, the commission said in its report.
Graham warned that such measures would be costly, but were necessary.
"The leadership of this country and the world will have to decide how
much of a priority ... they place on avoiding the worst weapons in the
world getting in the hands of the worst people in the world," he said.
"It is not going to be cheap. It is not going to be accomplished without some sacrifices. It won't be accomplished without putting this issue ahead of some other competing national and international goals. But I think our safety and security depend upon doing so," he added.
Graham said a biological attack was more likely than a nuclear one because it would be easier to carry out.
Biological weapons "are more available," he said. "Anthrax is a natural product of dead animals. Other serious pathogens are available in equally accessible forms."
"There are so many scientists who have the skills to convert a pathogen from benign, helpful purposes into an illicit, very harmful weapon," he added.
But the commission warned that there is also a threat of nuclear terrorism, both because more countries are developing nuclear weapons and because some existing nuclear powers are expanding their arsenals.
"Terrorist organizations are intent on acquiring nuclear weapons," said the report, which was published Tuesday on the Internet and will be officially released Wednesday.
CNN obtained a copy of the report Monday evening.
It cited testimony before the commission from former Sen. Sam Nunn, who said that the "risk of a nuclear weapon being used today is growing, not receding."
The report recommends a range of measures, including increased security and awareness at biological research labs and strengthening international treaties against the spread of biological and nuclear weapons.
"Many biological pathogens and nuclear materials around the world are poorly secured -- and thus vulnerable to theft by those who would put these materials to harmful use, or would sell them on the black market to potential terrorists," the report warned.
The commission expressed particular concern about the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea, and about Pakistan, which it described as "the intersection of nuclear weapons and terrorism."
While observing that Pakistan is a U.S. ally, the report said, "the next terrorist attack against the United States is likely to originate from within the Federally Administered Tribal Areas" in Pakistan. The tribal areas lie in northwest Pakistan where the government exerts little control; the United States says it is a haven for militants from both Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan.Congress created the commission to investigate and report on WMD and terrorism in line with a recommendation from the 9/11 Commission, which compiled a report on the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. Commissioners heard testimony from more than 250 experts from around the world over the course of their six-month investigation (CNN, 2008).