Date: January 2, 2010
Abstract: The US Post Office could play a key role in distributing medical aid in the event of a biological attack, according to an executive order released by the White House. The order signed by President Barack Obama directs government agencies, local law enforcement and the US Post Office to work on a model for distribution of medical countermeasures in the wake of a biological attack.
“This policy would seek to: (1) mitigate illness and prevent death; (2) sustain critical infrastructure; and (3) complement and supplement State, local, territorial, and tribal government medical countermeasure distribution capacity,” the order said. “The US Postal Service has the capacity for rapid residential delivery of medical countermeasures for self administration across all communities in the United States,” the order added.
The US Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano were instructed to work with the post office to develop a “dispensing model for US cities to respond to a large-scale biological attack, with anthrax as the primary threat consideration.” The order calls for the model to be drawn up within 180 days, but gives no details as to whether the idea of using the US postal system to assist Americans in the wake of a biological attack is a new one.
The United States has sought to bolster its capacity to respond to biological attacks since 2001, when anthrax-laced letters mailed to people across the United States led to five deaths. The order came amid heightened security concerns here following an attempt to bring down a US-bound jetliner on Christmas Day. A 23-year-old Nigerian has been charged in the case (Infowars, 2010).
Title: Senator Demands Answers On Government Anthrax Investigation Mystery
Date: January 2, 2010
Abstract: The US Post Office could play a key role in distributing medical aid in the event of a biological attack, according to an executive order released by the White House.
The order signed by President Barack Obama directs government agencies, local law enforcement and the US Post Office to work on a model for distribution of medical countermeasures in the wake of a biological attack.
[efoods]“This policy would seek to: (1) mitigate illness and prevent death; (2) sustain critical infrastructure; and (3) complement and supplement State, local, territorial, and tribal government medical countermeasure distribution capacity,” the order said.
“The US Postal Service has the capacity for rapid residential delivery of medical countermeasures for self administration across all communities in the United States,” the order added.
The US Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano were instructed to work with the post office to develop a “dispensing model for US cities to respond to a large-scale biological attack, with anthrax as the primary threat consideration.”
The order calls for the model to be drawn up within 180 days, but gives no details as to whether the idea of using the US postal system to assist Americans in the wake of a biological attack is a new one.
The United States has sought to bolster its capacity to respond to biological attacks since 2001, when anthrax-laced letters mailed to people across the United States led to five deaths.
The order came amid heightened security concerns here following an
attempt to bring down a US-bound jetliner on Christmas Day. A
23-year-old Nigerian has been charged in the case (Infowars, 2010).
Title: Officials Fear Toxic Ingredient In Botox Could Become Terrorist Tool
Date: January 25, 2010
Source: Washington Post
Abstract: In early 2006, a mysterious cosmetics trader named Rakhman began showing up at salons in St. Petersburg, Russia, hawking a popular anti-aging drug at suspiciously low prices. He flashed a briefcase filled with vials and promised he could deliver more -- "as many as you want," he told buyers -- from a supplier somewhere in Chechnya.
Rakhman's "Botox" was found to be a potent clone of the real thing, but investigators soon turned to a far bigger worry: the prospect of an illegal factory in Chechnya churning out raw botulinum toxin, the key ingredient in the beauty drug and one of world's deadliest poisons. A speck of toxin smaller than a grain of sand can kill a 150-pound adult.
No Chechen factory has been found, but a search for the maker of the highly lethal toxin in Rakhman's vials continues across a widening swath of Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia. U.S. officials and security experts say they know the lab exists, and probably dozens of other such labs, judging from the surging black market for the drug.
Al-Qaeda is known to have sought botulinum toxin. The Lebanese Hezbollah movement, which the United States has designated a terrorist organization, and other groups have bought and sold counterfeit drugs to raise cash. Now, with the emergence of a global black market for fake Botox, terrorism experts see an opportunity for a deadly convergence.
"It is the only profit-making venture for terrorists that can also potentially yield a weapon of mass destruction," said Kenneth Coleman, a physician and biodefense expert.
Last year, Coleman and fellow researcher Raymond Zilinskas set out to test whether militant groups could easily exploit the counterfeit Botox network to obtain materials for a bioterrorism attack. In a project sponsored by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, two scientists found that a biologist with a master's degree and $2,000 worth of equipment could easily make a gram of pure toxin, an amount equal to the weight of a small paper clip but enough, in theory, to kill thousands of people.
Obtaining the most lethal strain of the bacterium might have posed a significant hurdle for would-be terrorists in the recent past. But today, the prospect of tapping into the multibillion-dollar market for anti-wrinkle drugs has spawned an underground network of suppliers and distributors who do most of their transactions online, the researchers found. Customers don't need prescriptions or identification, other than a shipping address.
"We assume that illicit producers are willing to sell their products to anyone with cash," Zilinskas said.
Botox -- the trade name for the most common commercial formulation of the drug botulinum toxin Type A -- is not a weapon. It has been used for decades to cure medical ailments including migraine headaches and facial tics, and more recently as a wildly popular treatment for the wrinkles of aging. Eight companies worldwide are licensed to make variations of the drug, and in the United States it is sold only by prescription, under the oversight of the Food and Drug Administration.
Each vial contains a minuscule amount of the actual toxin, a naturally occurring nerve agent secreted by a kind of bacterium called Clostridium botulinum. The amount of poison in a prescribed dose is so small that a determined terrorist would have to obtain hundreds of vials at $400 each to kill even a single person, bioterrorism experts say.
Pure toxin is another matter. At full strength, it is the most toxic substance known to exist.
So lethal is the undiluted toxin that at least three countries -- the United States, the then-intact Soviet Union and Iraq -- explored its possible use as a possible biological or chemical weapon. All three gave up on the idea, partly because botulinum toxin degrades quickly when exposed to heat, making it poorly suited for delivery by missile or bomb.
Terrorists, on the other hand, have long been drawn to the toxin as a way to inflict widespread casualties through contamination of food or water supplies. The Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo experimented with a botulinum weapon in the early 1990s. An al-Qaeda training manual discovered in 2001 advocated the use of botulinum toxin in terrorist attacks.
None of the previous efforts succeeded. Aum Shinrikyo managed to cultivate a lethal strain of the toxin-producing bacterium, but stumbled when it tried to convert the poison into an aerosol form. Al-Qaeda's known bioweapons efforts were hampered by rudimentary lab equipment and limited access to lethal strains.
All of those problems can now be bypassed at a time when illicit networks are making the toxin for profit, said Coleman, the co-author of the study.
"There are no major obstacles," he said. "It's not that hard to acquire the bacterial strains. But you don't even have to make it. You can buy it from existing manufacturers. And you can buy it in sufficient quantity to cause widespread harm."
Tracking the Sources
The case of the Russian counterfeiter offers a glimpse into an illegal network of fake Botox suppliers that operates largely in the shadows.
Anti-wrinkle drugs are exceptionally popular in Russia and Eastern Europe, where less stringent consumer laws allow their distribution by non-physicians, including operators of beauty salons. But commercial botulinum toxin is costly, and many users have flocked to vendors who offer cheaper substitutes, said Marina Voronova, until recently a Russia-based bioweapons expert who has investigated counterfeit networks in the former Soviet Union.
Voronova, who now works for the nonprofit environmental group Global Green, said the Rakhman case came to light because of the man's success in undercutting licensed suppliers in St. Petersburg's salon circuit -- and also because he was among a very few vendors to make personal sales calls in an industry that mostly operates in cyberspace. Rakhman built up a brisk trade simply by walking into upscale shops and offering to sell Botox at a deep discount, she said.
"He was coming to St. Petersburg with a suitcase full of vials," said Voronova, who learned details of Rakhman's sales pitch in interviews with local officials. Rakhman took regular flights from Chechnya and seemed to have unlimited supply. When an undercover investigator asked how many doses he could deliver, he replied: "As many as you want," Voronova said, citing an account given to her by a Russian investigator.
Rakhman abruptly halted his St. Petersburg trips when local authorities began closing in, and Russian investigators were never able to determine where his counterfeit Botox was manufactured. Zilinskas and Coleman, in their study, concluded that much of the fake Botox sold over the Internet originated in China, a country with a history of producing knockoff versions of drugs and cosmetic products sold under patent in the West. But they noted that the toxin could be made in a garage-size laboratory almost anywhere, including Chechnya, notorious for black-market smuggling and a home-grown Islamic insurgency.
China recently acknowledged the seriousness of Botox counterfeiting domestically when it announced it was shutting down a factory in Shanxi province accused of making a copycat version of the drug. That crackdown came several months after Allergan, the chief U.S. manufacturer of commercial Botox, formally complained to Beijing that Chinese manufacturers were violating Allergan's patent protections.
Allergan officials say they are continuing to work with China to identify bogus manufacturers, but they also acknowledge that some producers are outlaws who hide from Chinese authorities by frequently changing their names and business addresses.
"There are organized criminal networks, and they act as registered agents for one another," said Allergan spokeswoman Caroline Van Hove.
Indeed, Internet hawkers of discount Botox -- sold under names such as Beauteous -- often list legitimate-sounding Chinese addresses that turn out to be fictional. The Washington Post recently sought to locate three Chinese firms that offered cut-rate Botox over the Web, only to find empty lots and dead ends.
The manufacturer of Beauteous gave a manufacturing address that turned out to be an upscale corner of Beijing where many foreign embassies are located. The street number listed on the Web site does not exist.
No laboratories for fake Botox have turned up in the United States, but there have been prominent examples of doctors and vendors who obtained cheap, unlicensed botulinum toxin to sell to unsuspecting patients and customers, sometimes with lethal results.
In 2004, U.S. Justice Department officials raided a string of clinics in five states after uncovering a supply network that substituted industrial-grade botulinum toxin for commercial Botox. The inferior toxin, which was made legally for laboratory research and not licensed for human use, paralyzed four patients.
But U.S. investigators acknowledge that they know less about the volume of trade in Botox-like drugs over the Internet. The counterfeits are part of a booming trade in fake pharmaceuticals ranging from cancer-treating medicines to knockoff Viagra. One U.S. investigator called the problem "out of control."
"We don't know how much is getting through," said the investigator, who insisted on anonymity because of his involvement in ongoing criminal probes. The fact that one of the hottest commodities happens to be a lethal poison elevates the risk to whole new level, he said.
"We know al-Qaeda has talked about going after food supplies in the United States," the official said. "There are new reasons to be concerned about what they're going to target next" (Washington Post, 2010).Title: Obama To Outline New Bioterror Steps In State Of The Union
Date: January 26, 2010
Source: USA Today
Abstract: President Obama will announce plans in his State of the Union address tonight to improve the government's ability to respond to a bioterror attack and other major public health threats, the White House said Tuesday.
Spokesman Nick Shapiro said Obama aims to enhance the nation's ability to quickly produce vaccines and other antidotes that could be distributed to save lives in case of another pandemic flu, anthrax attack or other crisis.
"The goal is a national capability for the rapid, reliable and affordable production of an array of medical countermeasures," Shapiro said. The announcement came hours after the bipartisan Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism gave the federal government an "F" for its preparations to respond to a biological attack that could cause mass casualties.
The commission also issued failing grades to Congress for not reorganizing itself to better oversee anti-terror efforts and to the government generally for failing to recruit and train new national security experts.
Efforts that won an "A" grade: a government review of security at laboratories where scientists work with dangerous pathogens, a new national strategy to improve bioforensic capabilities and the appointment of a White House adviser on weapons of mass destruction.
Commission Chairman Bob Graham, a former Democratic senator from Florida, called the report a "stinging indictment."
The report followed recent embarrassments for the government: months of delays in offering vaccines to counter the H1N1 flu and the White House's own review citing intelligence failures before the alleged attempt by a Nigerian man to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day.
"They are trying to hit us as hard as they can," he said.
He said the government has stopped some attacks. But "this is like Russian roulette — eventually that bullet's in the chamber."
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., called the report a "reminder that even as we struggle against conventional terrorist plots such as the one Christmas Day, we mustn't lose focus on the risk of nuclear or biological attacks."
Shapiro said Obama signed an executive order last month to use the U.S. Postal Service to help deliver medicine in case of a large-scale bioterror attack.
The upcoming announcement, Shapiro said, takes
into account the fact that "despite years of effort and millions of
dollars in taxpayer funds," the government and pharmaceutical industry
have not been able to develop and produce the medications needed to
counter an attack (USA Today, 2010).
Title: Heeding The Warning Of Bioterrorism
Date: January 26, 2010
Source: Bio Prep Watch
Abstract: The warning is clear: Bioterrorism is a serious danger to the United States, says the Report Card Grading Government on Protecting the United States, released Tuesday by the congressionally-mandated commission charged with assessing threats of weapons of mass destruction. We are unprepared for a catastrophic bio-attack, and the rest of the world is in far worse shape.
The commission’s warning is not the first high-level statement to focus attention on bioterrorism. Hopefully, it will prompt the action that the threat deserves.
Disease weapons have an awful capacity to infect tens of thousands of casualties (perhaps far more). Al Qaeda leaders have long recognized that disease weapons are a uniquely cheap way to spread mass panic. Indeed, intentionally inflicted disease ideally serves the goals of terrorism.
An attack could happen invisibly, and no one would know until victims arrive in emergency rooms and morgues. And anyone who can make enough lethal germs for one city can make enough for dozens of cities. The attacks can go on and on until the perpetrators are captured or killed.
The danger is global. Lethal biological agents and the laboratories to weaponize them are on every continent. Disease weapons can be readily smuggled through any airport. A contagious disease will spread across nations unimpeded by fences or border guards. As the President recently stated, “a biological incident that results in mass casualties anywhere in the world increases the risk to all nations from biological threats.”
Moreover, bioscience’s progress opens new and wondrous ways to make disease weapons. Technological barriers that have thwarted terrorists from inflicting disease are dissolving; eradicated diseases can be synthetically reincarnated; and altogether new diseases can be created. Looking forward, the threats of terrorists, criminals, or lunatics using disease weapons will grow.
Whatever the risk is today, it will be greater tomorrow.
We do not have to be vulnerable. Much can be done to reduce dangers of bioterrorism by focusing on its global dimensions.
This spring, President Obama will convene a Global Nuclear Terrorism Summit. That is fine, but bioterrorism is far more likely than nuclear terrorism. The President should call for a Global Biological Terrorism Summit and make this a foreign policy priority. Our allies appreciate the risks of bioterrorism and would join in a synergistic strategy that encourages progress on two principal challenges.
First is strengthening capabilities for interdicting bioterror preparations. Disease weapons can be made in nondescript buildings with few tell-take signs. It is foolhardy to rely on the remote surveillance techniques that only recently identified Iran’s secret nuclear weapons facility to find and stop bioterrorists from making disease weapons.
Better intelligence is needed about where lethal biological agents exist and where they are being transported. We need more and better trained eyes on the ground. Local law enforcers are the best positioned to identify strange activities, but most foreign police could walk past a bioterrorism laboratory without a clue. Strengthening global monitoring and detection capacities to stop bioterrorism should be the Summit’s first challenge.
Yet, no matter how capably we try to prevent a bio-attack, there can be no guarantee that an attacker will be stopped. We need to be prepared. Thus, the Summit’s second challenge is how to have enough medicines (antidotes and vaccines) to treat victims and contain the spread of disease. Delivery networks must be established to rapidly move these medicines to wherever they are needed, and emergency responders must be authorized, equipped and trained to administer treatment to huge populations.
The challenge of preparedness is not centrally about devoting enormous resources to new medicines, although better medicines to treat emerging diseases will be useful long-term. For now, we should increase stockpiles of available medicines and link those stockpiles to logistical capacities for rapid deployment. A global transport system that can move medicine is the best way to prepare against pandemic disease.
Currently, the United States bears too much of the global burden of confronting bioterrorism. When foreign officials need to be trained to recognize and interrupt bioterrorism (for example, in connection with world sporting events), U.S. government personnel lead the way. When diagnostic facilities need to be built, the U.S. devotes the resources and expertise to the effort. And when medicines are needed to treat anthrax, those medicines come from the U.S. stockpile.
United States leadership in this context is commendable, but bioterrorism’s global dangers compel engagement of foreign nations. Solutions will be more successful if our allies comparably appreciate why bioterrorism should be a high priority and how collectively we can reduce risks. A Global Summit would be a valuable step in the right direction (Bio Prep Watch, 2011).
Title: Obama Gets 'F' On Stopping Spread Of Weapons Of Mass Destruction
Date: January 26, 2010
Source: Fox News
Abstract: A bipartisan, independent commission on stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction says that the Obama administration has failed in its first year in office to do enough to prevent a germ weapons attack on America or to respond quickly and effectively should such an attack occur.
In a 19-page report card being published Tuesday, the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction, Proliferation and Terrorism, chaired by former Senators Bob Graham, a Democrat from Florida, and Jim Talent, a Missouri Republican, gives the new administration the grade of "F" for failing to take key steps the commission outlined just over a year ago in its initial report.
The commission repeated its warning that unless nations acted decisively and urgently, it was more likely than not that a WMD will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013, and that the terrorists' weapon of choice would be biological, rather than nuclear.
The administration's delayed response to the H1N1 virus, the report concludes, demonstrated that the United States was "woefully behind in its ability to rapidly produce rapidly vaccines and therapeutics, essential steps for adequately responding to a biological threat, whether natural or man-made."
Even with time to prepare, the report noted, the epidemic peaked "before most Americans had access to vaccine."
And a bio-attack, it warned, would have no such warning.
The administration's lack of urgency was also reflected in its lack of priority on producing and distributing enough vaccines and other medical countermeasures for Americans, its reluctance to insist that hospitals have enough surge capacity to treat people who would be infected in a bioterror attack, and the lack of a national plan to coordinate federal, state and local efforts following a bioterror strike, the document asserts.
Ultimately, the commission chairman and vice chairman say, the "lack of preparedness" and "consistent lack of action" reflect "a failure of the U.S. government to grasp the threat of biological weapons."
Unlike its effort to prevent a nuclear attack, the Obama administration has shown "no equal sense of urgency" about preventing or responding to germ warfare that might cause comparable death and suffering, the commission concludes.
The report assigns 17 grades that it says highlight the issues of greatest priority in protecting Americans from WMD. The commission gave the administration a "D+" for its efforts to tighten oversight of high-containment labs in which experiments involving the deadliest pathogens are conducted. There were still far too many Federal, state, and local agencies regulating germs in sometimes conflicting ways, it states.
The commission also gave Congress a failing grade for failing to consolidate the estimated 82 to 108 committees and subcommittees that oversee some part of the Department of Homeland Security.
"Virtually no progress has been made since consolidation was first recommended by the 9/11 Commission in 2004," the report asserts.
The Obama administration disputed the findings of the report Tuesday, arguing that the president has accomplished a "great deal" in his first year in office.
White House spokesman Nick Shapiro cited a recently signed executive order establishing "federal capability to rapidly provide medical countermeasures to supplement state and local response in the event of a large-scale biological attack." He said Obama would launch a new initiative aimed at addressing potential "public health threats" during his State of the Union address Wednesday.
The Graham/Talent WMD Commission, as it is known, is a legacy of the 9/11 Commission, which recommended its creation to examine WMD proliferation threats in its own report. In December, 2008, the WMD commission concluded in its final report that American national security faced ever growing threats from unconventional weapons, and from biological weapons in particular.
Its report, "World at Risk," unanimously concluded that bioterrorism was the most likely WMD threat the nation confronted given the exponential growth of biological technology and the stated desire of Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups to acquire such weapons. It called upon the administration to take 13 steps to reduce America's vulnerability to such an attack. The new report card assesses the progress that the Obama administration has made in implementing its recommendations.
The report is not uniformly negative. It gives the Administration high marks -- an "A" -- for the reviews it has conducted into how best to store and secure dangerous pathogens, and two "A-minus" grades for appointing a WMD coordinator and restructuring how the White House oversees homeland security issues.
But it warns that such steps are not commensurate with the threat the nation faces from terrorist groups searching for unconventional weapons in asymmetrical warfare.
Robert Kadlec, President Bush's former special adviser on bio-defense policy, declined to comment on the commission's failing grade in the area in which he worked, saying there was still "ample opportunity to provide more focus and resources" for bio-preparedness in the administration's remaining three years. "This is a hard problem which deserves high priority," he said.
Two defenders of the administration's policies, both of whom asked not to be identified by name because they were speaking without authorization, said that the Obama White House gave bio-defense and countering nuclear proliferation high priority.
One official said that Obama's second presidential security directive -- the first being the reorganization of the White House national security apparatus -- mapped out a national strategy to defend the nation against biological attacks. He also predicted that the administration would seek increases in its new budget for bio-defense and global surveillance programs.
been extended for one more year of work in 2009, the 9-member WMD
Commission is disbanding after issuing this final report card. But staff
members said that its chairman and vice-chairman intend to form a
non-profit organization to continue pressing the government to do more
to counter WMD threats (Fox News, 2010).
Date: February 2, 2010
Source: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
Abstract: The Graham-Talent WMD Commission asserted again last week that a bioterrorism attack that "will fundamentally change the character of life for the world's democracies" is highly likely to occur within the next four years. The commission argues that the United States must urgently expand its efforts to develop vaccines and other medical countermeasures against potential bioterrorism agents.
We disagree with the commission on both points. It exaggerates the bioterrorist threat and proposes solutions that won't produce the comprehensive approach needed to strengthen public health security.
The bioterrorist threat must be kept in perspective. Although many fictional "tabletop" scenarios and exercises have predicted bioterrorism catastrophes, these scenarios often have used unrealistic values for critical disease parameters and have routinely ignored the organizational and technical difficulties that terrorists would have in organizing, and successfully carrying out, a bioweapons attack. The history of both state-operated bioweapons programs and unsuccessful terrorist attempts to develop and use such weapons (e.g., the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo) have demonstrated, again and again, the significant difficulties that confront making and disseminating a biological weapon. The 2001 anthrax letter attacks, which were seen as validating the catastrophic scenarios, appear to have been executed with anthrax developed in a U.S. biodefense laboratory with capabilities vastly superior in scale and quality to anything a terrorist could achieve.
Advances in the life sciences may gradually put bioweapon capabilities closer within terrorist reach, but scientific and technological progress alone doesn't warrant exaggeration of the bioterrorist threat. Rather than basing policy on worst-case scenarios, the United States should develop and conduct more plausible, sophisticated threat assessments that take into account the complex set of political, social, and technical factors that would affect bioweapons development and use.
Since the 2001 anthrax attacks, the federal government has spent nearly $60 billion responding to the perceived threat of bioterrorism. Roughly one-half of that money has funded detection systems, dramatically expanded research on bioweapon agents, and the development, procurement, and stockpiling of vaccines and other medical countermeasures against these agents.
As bioterrorism has commanded policy and funding attention over the last decade, domestic influenza-related deaths have likely exceed 300,000 people. The growing problem of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, the lack of progress on reducing food-borne infections and disease outbreaks, and annual U.S. mortality figures from AIDS (14,000 deaths) and opportunistic infections such as MRSA (19,000 deaths) all speak to significant ongoing public health needs. Policy and funding decisions must be based on more than just mortality statistics. For instance, government is expected to respond effectively to acute disease outbreaks. Nonetheless, these figures underscore that continuing to emphasize and spend billions of dollars on measures to specifically counter exaggerated bioterrorist threats diverts attention and resources from other pressing natural disease threats and public health concerns.
Moreover, all the money and effort spent on biodefense hasn't produced demonstrably better overall health security for the country. Detection systems remain unreliable triggers for immediate responses. Expansion of biodefense research has increased the number of people with access to dangerous pathogens and toxins, which increases the risk of accidents, infiltration by outside groups, or attack by a rogue insider. Programs to develop stockpiles of vaccines against bioweapon agents continue to face questions relating to efficacy, safety, shelf life, and timely distribution. Many other bioweapon-specific countermeasures will be useless against serious infectious disease problems, other acute public health threats, or even bioterrorist attacks that differ from the threat predicted. Despite promises of broad-based "synergies," most of these efforts haven't produced benefits for public health, as illustrated by the problems experienced in the responses to pandemic influenza A (H1N1).
Nonetheless, the Graham-Talent Commission wants U.S. policy makers to continue down this questionable path with more urgency, more money, and more intense focus on bioterrorist threats. Such an approach will exacerbate the political and funding gaps between defense against bioterrorism and protection of the U.S. population from naturally occurring infectious diseases. Strangely, the Commission points to the H1N1 pandemic as evidence that the United States should devote more funding to biodefense, when the proper conclusion to draw from the troubles experienced with H1N1 is that Washington isn't paying enough attention to public health capabilities in its efforts to strengthen national health security.
Rather than continuing to argue, despite accumulated evidence to the contrary, that bioterrorism-centric policy and spending will produce meaningful and sustainable positive "spillover" effects for public health, a better, more comprehensive approach to national health security would focus on improving public health capabilities to respond to any kind of infectious disease threat. As the recently released U.S. National Health Security Strategy states, "Investments should focus, to the extent possible, on new technologies and countermeasures that could also have uses in non-public health emergency situations."
This more comprehensive approach would focus political attention and
fiscal resources on addressing important public health and national
health security needs, including:
1. Ensuring that the nation's public health system is capable of
addressing all public health needs, including infectious disease
outbreaks. Only by ensuring adequate staffing and resources in all
program areas will the United States build a sustainable public health
system that can strengthen individual resistance to disease, improve
early detection and treatment, and contain disease outbreaks, whether
natural, deliberate or accidental.
2. Increasing support for the basic tools necessary for public health
surveillance and epidemiology, including skilled personnel, public
health laboratories, and data collection, management, analytic, and
information-sharing systems. In this respect, the roughly $15 billion in
biodefense spending to strengthen state and local public health
capacity and fund other public health efforts has been important and needs to be maintained and even enhanced.
3. Enhancing animal disease surveillance and response capabilities and
their integration with public health systems, which would improve the
ability to rapidly detect and diagnose both animal and zoonotic
infections and disease outbreaks, whether natural or deliberate.
4. Improving disaster preparedness and response capabilities,
especially medical surge capacity. The capabilities needed to respond
quickly and effectively to an event that produces a large number of
casualties are similar whether the event is a natural disease outbreak, a
bioterrorism event, or a natural disaster such as an earthquake or
5. Strengthening research on new diagnostics, antibiotics, and antivirals for emerging or established diseases that cause significant mortality or morbidity. An ability to more rapidly develop, test, and verify the safety of new vaccines after an epidemic or pandemic is also important. However, emergency-response strategies shouldn't overly focus on vaccination because vaccines usually need to be given prior to exposure. New vaccines will continue to take time to produce, and stockpiled vaccines are highly disease-specific (often even strain-specific) and often have a limited shelf life.
Public health in the United States faces many challenges;
bioterrorism is just one. Policies need to be crafted to respond to the
full range of infectious disease threats and critical public health
challenges rather than be disproportionately weighted in favor of
defense against an exaggerated threat of bioterrorism. Nine years after
the anthrax letters, we know better than to expect narrowly construed
biodefense policies to produce comprehensive health security for the
U.S. people (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 2010).
Title: Ireland Calls For Tougher Restrictions On Bioweapons
Date: February 11, 2010
Source: Bio Prep Watch
Abstract: A spokesman for Ireland’s Labour Party has called for new legislation banning biological weapons to also include the prohibition of transmission of bioweapons through Irish airspace.
“There is evidence of the use of biological weapons in practically every other major conflict, so this legislation is urgent,” a Labour TD told the Irish Times. “It is very important that we not only prohibit any work in this regard but also, as a country interested in international law, that we bring forward the legislation dealing with Shannon
Ireland’s Cabinet approved the Biological Weapons Bill this week, which prohibits the use, development, production, manufacture, possession, stockpiling, acquisition and retention or transfer of biological weapons.
Ireland’s new ban will apply to all vessels and aircraft registered in Ireland as well as to members of the Defence Forces and citizens of Ireland outside of the nation.
Michael Higgins, the spokesman on foreign affairs for Labour, told the Irish Times that the bill, as it currently stands, does not extend the ban to the transmission of biological weapons through Shannon and other airports.
Higgins also said that the bill should be brought forward
in conjunction with the newly announced Air Navigation Bill, which is being
discussed by the Cabinet subcommittee on extraordinary rendition (Bio
Prep Watch, 2011).
Title: Rift Valley Fever - A Threat For Europe?
Date: March 11, 2010
Abstract: Rift Valley fever (RVF) is a severe mosquito-borne disease affecting humans and domestic ruminants, caused by a Phlebovirus (Bunyaviridae). It is widespread in Africa and has recently spread to Yemen and Saudi Arabia. RVF epidemics are more and more frequent in Africa and the Middle East, probably in relation with climatic changes (episodes of heavy rainfall in eastern and southern Africa), as well as intensified livestock trade. The probability of introduction and large-scale spread of RVF in Europe is very low, but localised RVF outbreaks may occur in humid areas with a large population of ruminants. Should this happen, human cases would probably occur in exposed individuals: farmers, veterinarians, slaughterhouse employees etc. Surveillance and diagnostic methods are available, but control tools are limited: vector control is difficult to implement, and vaccines are only available for ruminants, with either a limited efficacy (inactivated vaccines) or a residual pathogenic effect. The best strategy to protect Europe and the rest of the world against RVF is to develop more efficient surveillance and control tools and to implement coordinated regional monitoring and control programmes. Relevance of Rift Valley fever to public health in the European Union
Rift Valley fever (RVF) is a zoonotic disease of domestic ruminants and humans caused by an arbovirus belonging to the Phlebovirus genus (family Bunyaviridae). It causes high mortality rates in newborn ruminants, especially sheep and goats, and abortion in pregnant animals. Human infection by the RVF virus (RVFV) may result from mosquito bites, exposure to body fluids of livestock or to carcasses and organs during necropsy, slaughtering, and butchering.
The public health impact of RVF can be severe. In Egypt in 1976, 200,000 people were infected and 600 fatal cases officially reported, among others in the River Nile delta. Over 200 human deaths were reported in Mauritania in 1987.
In 2007-2008, 738 human cases were officially reported in Sudan, including 230 deaths. It is likely that the number of cases was underreported because RVF mostly affects rural populations living far from public health facilities. The occurrence of RVF in northern Egypt is evidence that RVF may occur in Mediterranean countries, thus directly threatening Europe. In the Indian Ocean, RVF has been introduced in the French island of Mayotte, with several clinical cases reported in humans.
Transmission, Epidemiology & Clinical Symptoms
The RVFV transmission cycle involves ruminants and mosquitoes. Host sensitivity depends on age and animal species. Humans are dead-end hosts. The epidemiological cycle is made more complex by direct transmission from infected ruminants to healthy ruminants or humans, by transovarian transmission in some mosquito species, and by a large number of potential vectors with different bio-ecology. The existence of wild reservoir hosts has not been clearly demonstrated to date.
The bite of infected mosquitoes is the main transmission mechanism of RVF in ruminants during inter-epizootic periods. More than 30 mosquito species were found to be infected by RVFV, belonging to seven genera of which Aedes and Culex are considered as the most important from the point of view of vector competence (other genera are Anopheles, Coquillettidia, Eretmapodite, Mansonia and Ochlerotatus).
In mosquitoes, transovarian RVFV transmission has been observed in Aedes mcintoshi. It appears to be a likely phenomenon in several other species, including the widespread Ae. vexans species complex. In some of these Aedes species, infected, diapaused eggs may survive in dried mud during inter-epizootic and/or dry/cold periods and hatch infected imagos.
Ruminant-to-human transmission is the main infection route for humans, although they can also be infected by mosquito bites. Body fluids such as the blood (during slaughtering and butchering), foetal membranes and amniotic fluid of viraemic ruminants are highly infective for humans. Fresh and raw meat may be a source of infection for humans, but the virus is destroyed rapidly during meat maturation. Empirical field observations indicate that ruminants can also become infected by contact with material containing virus (e.g. fetus and fetal membranes after abortion), however, this route of transmission has not yet been confirmed.
Direct human-to-human transmission has not been reported, and RVF is not considered to be a nosocomial disease. Transplacental RVFV transmission may occur in vertebrates, including humans. It results in abortion and high newborn mortality rates.
Rodents may be infected during epizootic periods but their epidemiological role in virus transmission and maintenance is not clear. Bat species also have been suspected. Finally, wild ruminants may play a role in the epidemiology of RVF in areas where their population density is high.
Clinical manifestations vary depending on age and animal species. In sheep, a fever of up to 41-42°C is observed after a short incubation period. Newborn lambs (and sometimes kids) usually die within 36 to 40 hours after the onset of symptoms, with mortality rates sometimes reaching 95%. Older animals (from two weeks to three months old) either die or develop only a mild infection. In pregnant ewes, abortions are frequent, ranging from 5% to 100%. Twenty per cent of the aborting ewes die. Vomiting may be the only clinical sign presented by adult sheep and lambs older than three months. However, these animals may experience fever with depression, haemorrhagic diarrhoea, bloodstained muco-purulent nasal discharge, and icterus. Case-fatality rates vary between 20% and 30%. Adult goats develop a mild form of the disease, but abortions are frequent (80%). Mortality rates are generally low. Calves often develop acute illness, with fever, fetid diarrhoea, and dyspnoea. Mortality rates may vary from 10% to 70%. Abortion is often the only clinical sign and mortality rates are low (10-15%).
In most cases, human infections remain unapparent, or with mild, influenza-like symptoms. However, infected people may experience an undifferentiated, severe, influenza-like syndrome and hepatitis with vomiting and diarrhoea. Complications may occur. Severe forms are manifested in three different clinical syndromes. The most frequent one is a maculo-retinitis, with blurred vision and a loss of visual acuity due to retinal haemorrhage and macular oedema. Encephalitis may also occur, accompanied by confusion and coma. This form is rarely fatal but permanent sequelae are encountered. The third and most severe form is a haemorrhagic fever, with hepatitis, thrombocytopenia, icterus, and multiple haemorrhages. This form is often fatal. Human case-fatality rates have been lower than 1% in the past, however, an increase has been reported since 1970. In the RVF epidemic in Saudi Arabia in the year 2000, the fatality rate reached 14%.
RVFV presents a high biohazard for livestock farmers, veterinarians, butchers, slaughterhouse employees, and laboratory staff handling infected biological samples. International public health agencies have set a bio-safety level (BSL) of BSL3 for facilities in Europe handling the virus and of BSL4 for facilities in the United States (US).
Appropriate diagnostic samples are peripheral blood collected on EDTA, plasma or serum of infected animals or patients, and the liver, brain, spleen or lymph nodes of dead animals. When samples can be conveyed rapidly to a diagnostic laboratory (<48 hours), they should be stored at a temperature below +4 °C. When this is not the case, samples should be frozen at -20 °C (or below). Small fragments of organs may be stored in a 10-20% glycerol solution.
Virus isolation can be performed in suckling or weaned mice by intracerebral or intraperitoneal inoculation or in a variety of cell cultures including Vero, BHK21, or mosquito line cells. RVFV can be identified in cell cultures by immunofluorescence, virus neutralisation test, reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR), and/or genome sequencing. Virus isolation is the gold standard for RVF diagnosis. However, its sensitivity is rather low: RVFV isolation is not easy to achieve. Alternatively, the detection of RVFV ribonucleic acid (RNA) can be done using RT-PCR performed on RNA extracted directly from biological samples. Results are available within a few hours, which makes RT-PCR the priority test when a case of RVF is suspected.
Serological tests to detect antibodies against RVFV include the virus neutralisation test (VNT), and enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays (ELISA). VNT is very specific, cross reactions with other Phleboviruses being limited. It is the gold standard serological test. However, it is costly, time consuming, and requires a BSL3 or 4 laboratory.
(Indirect) immunoglobulin (Ig) detection ELISAs are quick, sensitive and specific. They are progressively replacing VNT. A competition ELISA (cELISA) is also commercially available to detect IgG and IgM. It allows serological diagnosis in ruminants and humans. At the earliest, it can detect antibodies as soon as four days following infection or vaccination in animals reacting very early, and eight days post-vaccination for 100% of animals. More recently, another indirect ELISA based on a recombinant RVFV nucleoprotein has been developed. Its sensitivity is 98.7% and specificity 99.4%.
The cELISA has been evaluated with human and animal sera collected in Africa, and also with sera from French livestock (cattle, sheep and goats) to check their specificity with European ruminant breeds which turned out to be excellent with a predictive negative value of 100% (n = 502), 95% confidence interval: 99.3 to 100%.
There is no specific treatment for either humans or animals.
A human vaccine (inactivated with beta-propiolactone) has been produced in the US and was used to protect laboratory staff and military troops. However, its production has been stopped.
Given that domestic ruminants are involved in the epidemiological cycle and that humans mostly become infected after contact with viraemic animals, the vaccination of ruminants is the method of choice to prevent human disease. Both live and inactivated vaccines are available for livestock.
The Smithburn vaccine is a live attenuated vaccine. It is inexpensive to prepare and immunogenic for sheep, goats, and cattle. It protects these species against abortion caused by a wild RVFV, and post-vaccinal immunity is life long. However, it has a residual pathogenic effect and may induce foetal abnormalities and/or abortion in ruminants. It is also pathogenic for humans (febrile syndrome). Despite these drawbacks, it is recommended by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and remains the most widely used vaccine against RVF in Africa.
The inactivated RVF vaccine provides a lower level of protection and its production is more expensive. Moreover, it requires at least two inoculations and frequent booster shots to induce the desired level of protection, rendering it inappropriate in countries where large portions of ruminant herds are nomadic. However, it was used by the Israeli veterinary services to prevent RVF introduction to Israel after the 1977-1978 epidemic in Egypt, as well as by the Egyptian veterinary services to prevent re-introduction of RVF from Sudan after an epidemic hit that country in 2007.
Other candidate vaccines are being evaluated such as the so-called “clone 13” which is an attenuated strain of RVFV that was isolated from a moderately ill patient in the Central African Republic. This vaccine induces neutralising antibodies against RVFV. New-generation vaccines are also under study: recombinant vaccines using a poxvirus or an Alphavirus-based vector and DNA vaccines. However, these vaccines are still in the preliminary stages of development.
Smithburn and inactivated vaccines are produced and commercially available in Egypt, South Africa, and Kenya. There is no Community pharmaceutical legislation prohibiting companies from producing RVF vaccines on EU territory and there is no obligation to notify such production to the European Commission. Moreover, quoting Council Directive 2001/82/EC (EC 2001b), “in the event of serious epizootic diseases, Member States may provisionally allow the use of immunological veterinary medicinal products without a marketing authorisation, in the absence of a suitable medicinal product and after informing the Commission of the detailed conditions of use (article 8)”.
Larvicide treatments may provide a control alternative where mosquito breeding sites are well identified and cover limited surface areas. Both Methoprene, a hormonal larval growth inhibitor, and Bacillus thuringiensis israeliensis (BTI) preparations, a microbial larvicide, are commercially available and can be used successfully to treat temporary ponds and watering places where mosquitoes proliferate. Adulticide treatments (e.g. using pyrethroids) are expensive and difficult to implement. Moreover, because this usually involves treating large areas, the environmental and ecological consequences may be important.
Preventive measures should also include restrictions on animal movements, the avoidance or control of the slaughter and butchering of ruminants, the use of insect repellents and bed nets during outbreaks, information campaigns, and increased and targeted surveillance of animals, humans and vectors.
Current Geographical Distribution
RVF is either enzootic, or is reported in most sub-Saharan African countries, Egypt and Madagascar.
Geographical distribution of Rift Valley feverDuring the first large epidemic, reported in Egypt in 1977-1978, over 600 people died of RVF. The epidemic reached the Mediterranean shore (Nile delta) but did not spread to neighbouring countries.In September 2000, RVF was detected for the first time outside of the African continent in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and led to human deaths and major livestock losses.
By the end of 2006, the disease had re-emerged in Kenya, followed by Tanzania and Somalia. Another large epidemic hit the Sudan in 2007 in the Nile Valley around Khartoum. In May 2007, RVF was diagnosed on the French island of Mayotte in a young boy who had been evacuated from Anjouan, one of the other islands of the Comoros archipelago. The RVFV was probably introduced there by the trade of live ruminants imported from Kenya or Tanzania during the 2006-2007 epidemics. Studies conducted after this first human case was reported have shown that 10% of cattle had antibodies against RVFV (ELISA, IgG and/or IgM) - without any clinical suspicions reported by the public and private veterinary services. A retrospective study was then conducted in 2008, using blood samples collected from clinically suspected human cases of dengue or chikungunya illness who had tested negative for these two diseases, between 1 September 2007 and 31 May 2008. Ten human RVF cases were found (including IgM- and/or RT-PCR-positive samples), seven of them (70%) occurring from January to April, during the hot, rainy season. This study has demonstrated that RVF had been circulating in Mayotte at least since early 2007, probably introduced there by the illegal importation of live infected ruminants from other Comoros islands.
In 2008, a RVF epidemic occurred in Madagascar with over 500 human cases. Several outbreaks were reported in South Africa in late 2007 and 2008 without any reported human cases.
Factors of Change
Factors that could cause a change in the epidemiology of RVF are summarised in Table 3. Irrigated areas, including rice fields, constitute favourable breeding sites for many mosquito species. Dambos are temporary surface water bodies found in semi-arid eastern Africa. With heavy rainfall and consecutive flooding, considerable mosquito proliferation may occur (mostly Aedes and Culex spp.). Wadi are temporary rivers encountered in arid areas (e.g. Yemen or Saudi Arabia): when they stop flowing, surface water remains available in ponds and mosquitoes may proliferate. Livestock trade and the Mediterranean region
Livestock trade and transport may affect the geographical distribution of RVF and contribute to a large scale – sometimes continental – spread of the disease and to the introduction of the virus into disease-free areas via livestock movements. RVF cases were reported in irrigated areas of the Sudan during the 1970s. Antibodies were detected in camels that crossed the border from Sudan to Egypt, suggesting that infected camels may have introduced RVFV into Egypt.
During the outbreak in Saudi Arabia in 2000, six viral strains of RVFV were isolated from Aedes mosquitoes. These strains were genetically close to the strain isolated in Kenya (1997-1998), suggesting that the virus was probably introduced into Saudi Arabia from the Horn of Africa by ruminants. It remains unknown whether the virus has survived in Saudi Arabia since 2000. In any event, the risk of re-introduction from the Horn of Africa is high. During the period of religious festivals in Mecca, 10 to 15 million small ruminants are imported from there to Saudi Arabia.
A similar pattern in sheep trade is observed between sub-Saharan Africa and northern Africa. In the coming years, the Muslim feasts of Eid-ul-Fitr and Eid al-Adha will occur between September and November, i.e. when the activity of mosquito populations is high (end of the rainy season in Sahelian Africa).
Therefore, the introduction of RVF-infected animals on the eastern and southern shores of the Mediterranean Sea is a likely event. Once introduced there, RVFV may find ruminant hosts, as well as competent mosquito species. However, because livestock trade from northern Africa and the Middle East to Europe is forbidden, the introduction of RVF-infected animals to Europe looks unlikely.
Climate warming is likely to have an impact on the geographical distribution of RVF. Higher temperatures increase mosquito feeding frequency and egg production and decrease the duration of their development cycle, as well as the extrinsic incubation period of RVFV in mosquitoes. Therefore, higher temperatures associated with increased rainfall may result in higher vector densities and vector competence and, subsequently, a higher RVFV transmission rate. In addition, transovarian transmission processes could be altered.
If the virus were introduced to northern Africa or southern Europe, mosquitoes such as Ae. vexans could play a role as vectors in many Mediterranean countries. Several Ochlerotatus species, which breed in wetlands, might also be able to transmit the virus. Culex pipiens, a ubiquitous species, is locally abundant (in wetlands, rice fields, irrigated crops, sewers etc) and may act as an amplifier in the biological cycle. Increased temperatures could also have an impact on the vector competence and capacity of other endemic European mosquito species, although this is difficult to quantify (it has already been proved in controlled conditions with other arboviruses). Indeed, if introduced, several potential vector species that have so far not been investigated may become involved in the transmission of the RVFV.
In East Africa, RVFV causes major epidemics at irregular intervals of 5-15 years. Climate models for this region predict an increase in the mean annual rainfall as well as an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme rainfall events. These changes may induce more severe and more frequent outbreaks in East Africa, which would thus represent a high risk area for neighbouring regions with livestock trade relationships such as the Indian Ocean islands.
The flight capacities of Aedes and Culex mosquitoes are somewhat limited, ranging from a few hundred metres to more than 10 km. However, these distances are long enough to allow a local spread of RVF.
Wind transportation of infected mosquitoes has been reported for other arboviruses. Presently, no information is available for RVFV vectors. Passive transportation of infected mosquitoes in boats or planes travelling from Africa has been reported for Anopheles mosquitoes infected by Plasmodium parasites. However, for RVFV to be introduced this way, such infected mosquitoes would need to find susceptible hosts to initiate a local cycle. This event looks unlikely.
East Africa (Kenya)
In Kenya, a correlation has been demonstrated between heavy rainfall events and the occurrence of RVF outbreaks. Maps of remotely sensed rainfall as well as vegetation index maps have been used together with ground data to monitor and predict vector population dynamics and RVFV activity and have established a correlation between these two parameters. The main advantage of remote sensing for the prediction of RVF occurrence in East Africa is the relatively low cost. It is readily available on a country and regional basis and its use may allow preventive measures to be taken such as the vaccination of susceptible livestock and the control of mosquito larvae.
Predictive models have been improved over the past decade through the addition of Pacific and Indian Ocean surface temperature anomalies and rainfall and normalised difference vegetation index (NDVI) data. An accuracy of 95-100% was estimated for the prediction of Kenyan epizootics of RVF, with a lead time of two to five months. The FAO has used the technology to warn countries facing an increased risk of RVF. However, the geographic scope of these models is limited because ecological and epidemiological processes are different in other areas of Africa. The outlook for the use of these models is even worse for the Mediterranean basin and Europe where climate determinants differ significantly from those of East Africa and the potential ecological and epidemiological processes are unknown as the disease has never been reported in these areas.
West Africa (Senegal)
RVF is endemic in the Ferlo area (northern Senegal). This area is characterised by a temporary pond ecosystem. These ponds are filled at the beginning of the rainy season (July) and dry up from October to January, according to their size and the intensity of rainfall, and are favourable environment to the development of Aedes mosquito populations.
However, the East African model can not be applied in West Africa: abundant rainfall is not often associated with RVF outbreaks. The epidemiological process leading to RVF epidemics looks much more complex, involving the joint dynamics of hosts movements (transhumance), host immunity, and a vector population with brief activity during the rainy season.
In this region, the risk of transmission was shown to be heterogeneous and linked to pond type. A very high spatial resolution remote sensing image was used to characterise the temporary ponds and their environment and derive indices linked to mosquito biology. However, this work is not advanced enough to be used in surveillance programmes.
Risk Analysis for Europe
A detailed, qualitative risk analysis was performed in 2005 by The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). The main conclusions of this study are summarised below.
The importation of infected ruminants is the greatest hazard for RVF introduction to the European Union (EU). Clinical signs may not be observed rapidly in livestock living in remote, humid areas such as the Camargue region in France or the Danube delta in Romania. Such a scenario would allow RVFV to amplify and endemic foci to develop, if suitable ecological and entomological conditions were met.
Official RVF-free status is required for a country to export livestock and livestock meat to the EU. Such a status depends on a country’s ability – relying on observable evidences – to implement an efficient disease surveillance system and willingness to report possible RVF outbreaks. These constraints are the same as for foot-and-mouth disease and other epizootic diseases. They were instituted in 1972 (directive 72/462/CEE, later modified to be more stringent). The practical consequence is that any introduction of live ruminants and their products from Africa and the Middle East to the European Union is forbidden. However, illegal and unknown ruminant importations probably occur between the Middle East and central Europe, and between northern Africa and southern Europe. This is also a major component of the risk of introduction of many other important animal and zoonotic diseases, like peste des petits ruminants, foot-and-mouth disease, bluetongue disease, Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever, etc. For instance, a risk analysis has recently been conducted to assess the risk of introduction of peste des petits ruminants virus (a Morbillivirus) from Maghreb to France. The conclusion was that the risk was extremely low, ranging from 0 to 2 on a scale from 0 (impossible event) to 9 (certain event).
Several potential RVFV vectors are present in the EU (Tables 4 and 5). Differences in climate, seasonal variations of vector and host density, and genetic drift may result in differences in vector competence (the biological suitability of the vector to transmit the pathogen) and vectorial capacity (external factors such as number and lifespan of the vector, feeding preferences of the host) compared with the situation in Africa. Nevertheless, there is almost no doubt that several of the mosquito species in the EU, e.g. Cx. pipiens, would be competent vectors for RVF. Moreover, the introduction and spread of new vector species represents a further risk. For example, Ae. albopictus can transmit RVFV, and many epidemiological concerns arise from this species’ current distribution in Europe: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Italy (including Sicilia and Sardinia), south eastern continental France and Corsica, limited areas of Germany (north of the Alps), Greece, Monaco, Montenegro, the Netherlands (green houses), San Marino, Slovenia, eastern Spain, southern Switzerland, and the Vatican city.
Blood, organs, fresh meat, fetal fluids and tissues as well as hides all represent a serious hazard to at-risk occupational groups (farmers, veterinarians, slaughterhouse employees, butchers, etc). The virus persists in the liver, spleen and kidneys, but rapidly disappears from meat as the pH decreases with meat maturation. The importance of blood, bone and offal meal products as a vehicle for RVFV has not been evaluated. Milk is not considered to constitute a risk. However, due to a lack of data, transmission by ingestion of milk can not be definitively ruled out. Accidental RVF infections have been recorded in laboratory staff handling blood and tissues from infected animals.
Several national and Commission-supported analyses have been conducted to assess the risk of the introduction and spread of RVF within the EU. The conclusions have been that the overall risk was low. However, the recent reappearance of RVF in East Africa, including Sudan, the Nile Valley, and the Indian Ocean, has shown that the RVFV is very active and sensitive to climate and other environmental as well as socio-economic changes. These changes, together with growing human populations and an associated increased demand for meat, will promote greater controlled and uncontrolled movements of livestock. Consequently, the Mediterranean basin, central Europe, and the Middle East will probably be increasingly exposed to the risk of introduction of RVF. It is important to promote risk analyses that rely on accurate estimations of livestock movements between endemic and RVF-free areas. Moreover, high-risk ecosystems should be catalogued and the data updated on a regular basis to account for environmental changes. This latter activity has been initiated under the EU-funded Emerging Diseases in a changing European eNvironment (EDEN) project and should be continued once the project ends in 2010. Research programmes are needed to better characterise the bionomics of RVFV vectors in Europe and to develop RVFV introduction, installation, and spread models to improve disease surveillance and provide more efficient decision-making tools.
Furthermore, more efficient vector and disease control methods are needed to enable the implementation of efficient contingency plans:
2. For disease control in European ruminants, the existing vaccines should be tested, preferably in collaboration with pharmaceutical companies. Because the cheapest and most efficacious existing vaccine (the Smithburn RVFV strain) has residual pathogenic effects in ruminants and humans, research on new-generation vaccines (e.g. recombinant, or reverse-genetic vaccines) should also be supported, both for human and animal populations.
3. Because a large-scale RVF epidemic appears unlikely in Europe (where a low proportion of people have direct contact with ruminants and their body fluids), human vaccination should target the population subgroups at high risk of exposure (farmers, veterinarians, slaughterhouse employees, butchers etc), once human vaccines have been developed.
4. Finally, the most relevant long term strategy is to control RVF where it is endemic. A substantial effort is needed to better understand the bio-ecology of RVFV vectors and viruses and epidemiological processes in Africa, to develop predictive and quantitative risk models and maps, and to implement risk-based surveillance and control methods (Eurosurveillance, 2010).
Title: 6 Vulnerable Potential Terrorist Targets
Date: March 30, 2010
Source: U.S. News
Abstract: Willful Neglect: The Dangerous Illusion of
Homeland Security author Charles Faddis says that terrorists have an ample
number of targets to attack in the U.S. and that some are more vulnerable than
others. Here are some targets that Faddis says are particularly dangerous and
could cause catastrophic damage were they to be struck.
#4 Chemical Plants
Chemical plants have long been a concern for the Department of Homeland Security. "Tens of millions of Americans live surrounded by what are, from a terrorist perspective, giant, prepositioned chemical weapons," Faddis writes. "There is no need to construct a weapon and design some mechanism for bringing it onto our soil...They exist in mass quantities, and they are already in position in proximity to major population centers. All that is required is to set them off."
Example: An accidental leak of toxic gas in Bhopal, India in
1984 killed between 16,000 and 30,000 people and injured 500,000 others. The
substance discharged in Bhopal, methyl isocyanate, is manufactured in a number
of different locations within the U.S., most of them in proximity to large
"Since 2001, over $20 billion has been spent on bio defense programs...The number of laboratories working with dangerous pathogens has exploded," Faddis writes. "...We have a lot more labs now and a lot more people in them, but that may have made us much less safe than we were before. While we worry about germs and the possibility of someone setting them loose against us, we are rapidly growing the pathogens ourselves and placing them in facilities all over this country, including major population centers." Research labs work with various types of pathogens, not all of which get the attention of anthrax. These include rift valley fever, Japanese encephalitis, foot and mouth disease, contagious bovine pleuropneumonia, and the nipah virus to name a few.
Example: In 2001, letters with anthrax were sent to numerous news organizations and congressional offices. Five people died as a result; 17 more were infected but survived (U.S. News, 2010).
Title: U.S. Not Ready For Clean Up Effort After A Bioterror Attack
Date: April 10, 2010
Source: Homeland Security News Wire
Abstract: The small 2001 anthrax attack in the United States cost hundreds of millions of dollars in decontamination costs, and some of the facilities attacked could not be reopened for more than two years; a large-scale biological release in an American city, though, could potentially result in hundreds of thousands of illnesses and deaths and could cost trillions of dollars to clean up.
Following the 2001 anthrax attacks, the government and private sector undertook the task of cleaning up anthrax-contaminated facilities — a job that had never before been attempted on that scale. Decontaminating congressional office buildings, postal facilities, and media buildings cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and some of the facilities could not be reopened for more than two years.
Nine years later, what progress has been made in policy and practice that would make decontamination easier in the event of another attack? A recent assessment, sponsored by the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism and appearing in the journal Biosecurity and Bioterrorism, found that the process of environmental decontamination would still be very difficult and costly and that the lines of responsibility at the federal level are still unclear.
The 2001 anthrax attack is considered to be a small attack, because relatively few facilities were involved and anthrax contamination was limited to indoor environments. A large-scale biological release, though, could potentially result in hundreds of thousands of illnesses and deaths and could cost trillions of dollars to clean up. An attack on a U.S. city could contaminate both indoor and outdoor areas, including buildings, street, parks, and vehicles.
Researchers from the Center for Biosecurity of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center looked at current decontamination policy and technical practices at the federal level to determine what gaps exist that might hamper response to a future large-scale attack with a biological agent. The government agencies with primary responsibility for decontamination are the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the Department of Defense (DoD). Federal roles and responsibilities for decontamination research and response are not clearly spelled out, overlap, and are often underfunded..
The article also describes some of the technical and scientific issues that remain unresolved: After an anthrax release, what is the risk of secondary aerosolization? What is the federal standard for decontamination — or, how clean is clean? How clean is safe?
The authors note that there are too few personnel trained in decontamination among all of the agencies and including private contractors. In the event of an attack, private building owners and government agencies would likely be calling on the same limited pool of experts and contractors to help with remediation.
Among the recommendations the authors propose:
2. Congress should increase funding for decontamination research
3. In addition to research, additional investment in personnel is needed (Homeland Security News Wire, 2010).
Title: Secretary Of State Clinton Says U.S. Will Consider Nuclear Response
Date: April 12, 2010
Source: Bio Prep Watch
Abstract: U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has struck back at critics of the nation’s new nuclear weapons stance, telling CBS’ "Face the Nation" that "all bets are off" in the event of a biological attack.
Clinton was joined by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who said that both Iran and North Korea would be exceptions to the new policy of nuclear response as both nations have defied UN resolutions on their atomic programs.
"If we can prove that a biological attack originated in a country that attacked us, then all bets are off," Clinton said in an interview on "Face the Nation."
Gates, when asked why Iran and North Korea were exceptions to the newly unveiled nuclear policy, added, "They’re not in compliance with the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. So for them, all bets are off. All the options are on table."
A new arms control deal with Russia, Clinton and Gates said, along with the revised nuclear policy, bolsters the diplomatic leverage held by President Obama in his quest to isolate Iran and North Korea over their nuclear programs.
The duo also rejected Republican criticism that the new nuclear policy sent signals of weakness to the world.
"We have still a very powerful nuclear
arsenal," Gates told NBC’s "Meet the Press" (Bio
Prep Watch, 2010).
Title: First Ever Molecule That Protects Against Ricin
Date: April 15, 2010
Abstract: In 1978, Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov was walking across Waterloo Bridge in London when he felt a sharp stinging pain in his leg. A passer-by had jabbed him with the tip of an umbrella and, having apologised, the two parted ways. Three days later, Markov was dead. The umbrella had fired a small poisoned pellet into his leg, turning Markov into the most famous victim of one of the world’s deadliest poisons – ricin.
Ricin is a great example to cite to people who think that “natural” equates to “healthy”. It’s a protein that comes from the castor bean, which is easy to grow, used in a wide variety of products, and delivers large amounts of its lethal chemical payload. One milligram can be lethal, and there is no known antidote. All of these qualities make it a potential bioterror weapon, and they have galvanised the quest for an antidote. That quest has just taken a big step forward, for Bahne Stechmann at the Curie Institute has discovered the first small molecule that protects mice against ricin.
Stechmann’s drug, known as Retro-2, not only saves mice from death by ricin, it also defends them against a related class of poisons called Shiga-like toxins. These are produced by disease-causing strains of the gut bacterium Escherichia coli and while less toxic than ricin, they can also be fatal. So Stechmann’s new discovery is a two-for-one defensive deal.
Both ricin and Shiga-like toxins have similar structures. One half of each protein – the A subunit – does the killing. It irreversibly breaks ribosomes, the factories that cells use to produce new proteins. A single ricin protein can knock out 1,500 of these factories every minute and without the ability to create new proteins, our cells perish. But a weapon is useless if it can’t be fired in the right place.
Getting the A subunit into range of the ribosomes is the job of the other half of the protein – the B subunit. It’s a backstage pass that sticks to docking molecules on the surface of our cells and allows the entire protein to be smuggled inside. Once there, it gets shuttled from one structure to another until it reaches the endoplasmic reticulum, where ribosomes live. If you block this chain of transport, you neutralise ricin and Shiga-like toxins; after all, the proteins cannot destroy what they cannot reach. And that’s exactly what Stechmann’s team has managed to do.
Stechmann, working with a large team of French scientists, scoured a library of over 16,000 potential drugs for any candidates that could protect cells from ricin. Modern technology allowed him to simultaneously test all of these chemicals on ricin-treated cells. To see if they worked, Stechmann gave the cells a radioactive amino acid; those that managed to incorporate this gift into new proteins were clearly shrugging off ricin’s ribosome-killing efforts.
The result of this “high-throughput screening” is the beautiful image below. The green band at the bottom is a baseline of death – it represents the no-survivor aftermath when human cells meet ricin. The yellow band at the top consist of control cells that are all still alive – that’s what you’d ideally be aiming for in terms of an antidote. The red dots represent what happens when the cells were treated with each of the 16,000 drugs. The vast majority are hovering at the green level, because most of the chemicals didn’t work. But you can clearly see that at least six of the drugs had a positive effect – these red dots stand out from the crowd, flirting with survival.
Stechmann decided to pursue two of these molecular guardians, Retro-1 and Retro-2 – they had the winning combo of protection against ricin and few side effects of their own. And to top it all off, the compounds worked against Shiga-like toxins too. In laboratory cells, these drugs only partially protected against death by ricin but, surprisingly, Retro-2 actually did much better when it was actually tested in mice. Even when Stechmann used a dose of ricin that would normally kill 90% of mice within three weeks, small doses of Retro-2 managed to save half the animals and larger doses protected all of them.
Neither Retro-1 nor Retro-2 works by actually affecting the toxins themselves; instead, they just stop them from reaching their destination. By acting on the host rather than the invader, they could work against many other threats and it should be harder to evolve resistance against them. For now, it’s not clear how exactly the two drugs prevent ricin and Shiga-like toxins from reaching their killing grounds. This is the big question that needs to be answered; doing so will allow scientists to develop Retro-2 into an even more effective anti-ricin drug (Discovery, 2010).
Title: Bootleg Botox: A New Terror Threat?
Date: May 14, 2010
Source: Foreign Policy
Abstract: Take a substance that is sought all over the world for cosmetic purposes, to smooth wrinkles and make people look better. It can be produced without sophisticated equipment, doses are infinitesimal, and there is a huge commercial market.
In pure form it is also one of the deadliest poisons on Earth.
This is botulinum neurotoxin, the active ingredient in Botox. The results of a two-year investigation to be published next week by a team at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies suggest that counterfeit Botox, as well as counterfeit versions of its competitors, is cropping up around the world and could pose a serious security threat if its producers decide to sell the active ingredient to the wrong people. Writing in the June issue of Scientific American, Ken Coleman and Raymond A. Zilinskas warn that the combination of a deadly toxin, illicit producers, and high global demand for their products spells potential trouble.
They found signs that illegal Botox operations are underway, mainly in China, but also possibly in Russia and India. The producers and middlemen are often difficult to track, but they found a "substantial increase in internet vendors in the last two years." In China alone, they found 20 web sites claiming to be "certified" suppliers of the toxin and offering cosmetic products for sale. "The addresses provided on the sites often proved to be non-existent locations or small offices that appeared to be empty fronts," they write.
Often the bootleg products on the market contain some of the toxin, but in widely varying amounts. Only seven companies in the world have licenses to produce pharamceutical-grade botulinum neurotoxin for use in people. In the United States it is overseen by the Food and Drug Administration and available only by prescription.
Joby Warrick of the Washington Post wrote about the Coleman-Zilinskas investigation in January. While describing the dangers, he also pointed out that Botox, the trade name for the most common commercial formulation, owned by Allergan, is not a weapon. Each vial contains a minuscule amount of the actual toxin, which is secreted by a bacterium called Clostridium botulinum. The amount of poison in a prescribed dose is so small that a determined terrorist would have to obtain hundreds of vials to kill a person.
The FDA first approved Botox in December 1989 as an "orphan drug," those developed for rare medical conditions, for the treatment of two neurological disorders, strabismus (crossed eyes) and blepharospasm (eyelid spasms). In 2002, Botox was first approved by the FDA for cosmetic use, to treat wrinkles (glabellar lines). Since then, Botox has been approved for two additional treatments - hyperhidrosis (excess sweating) and uncontrolled contractions of the neck and shoulder muscles (cervical dystonia). In addition, Zilinskas said, many doctors use Botox for unapproved indications, such as facial spasms, vocal cord problems, and migraine headaches.
But it is not the use of Botox for such medical and cosmetic purposes that poses a security threat. Rather, it is the fact that botulinum neurotoxin, in its pure form, is "the deadliest substance known to science," according to Coleman and Zilinskas. It is grouped with the world's most lethal potential biological weapons agents, sharing "select agent" status with the pathogens that cause smallpox, anthrax and plague. How potent is it? One gram could be lethal to 14,285 people if ingested, 1.25 million people if inhaled, and 8.3 million people if injected. The toxin particles block receptors on nerve endings, silencing the nerves and paralyzing surrounding muscles.
Coleman and Zilinskas fear that terrorists may make the connection between the cosmetic uses and the deadly toxin, and find a way to produce or buy the dangerous stuff on the Internet. "As security analysts, we undertook two years ago to explore the size and nature of this illicit global trade," they write, "and have come away gravely concerned that a deadly, but once relatively inaccessible, weapons agent is now becoming as easy to get or to make as a roadside bomb."
"Manufacturing the minuscule amounts of it that are required to kill takes only equipment standard in biological laboratories worldwide," the authors write. "In less than a month, someone with the equivalent of a masters degree in biology could probably accomplish the necessary steps to produce enough toxin to cause mass casualties."
The fake Botox is cheaper than the real thing. Who buys it? The primary customers are "unscrupulous doctors and cosmetologists who buy from the illicit producers or middlemen, often via the Internet, hoping to pocket the price difference," they say.
Traditional methods to fight the problem may not work. Export controls and weapons interdiction will have limited impact on shadowy traffickers, the authors suggest, because "the commonplace materials needed make the toxin and the bacterium itself are too widespread." While legitimate manufacturers are taking steps against counterfeiting, they lack the expertise, resources, and authority required to track down and prosecute illicit Botox laboratories.
Coleman and Zilinskas suggest a different approach: as a first step, a consortium of governments, industry, and law enforcement should attempt to buy up as many samples of the illicit stuff as possible, and then rigorously analyze it, coming up with a good estimate of how many laboratories are actually out there and what they are producing. Such an effort was made in recent years to fight the counterfeiting of an anti-malaria drug in Southeast Asia. Then a more aggressive effort to stop it could be launched by individual governments where the illicit botulinum neurotoxin producers are at work.
There's a lot that's unknown about this threat. The only case of a non-state actor attempting to use the toxin was a failed effort by the Aum Shinrikyo cult in the early 1990s. But the article by Coleman and Zilinskas suggests the rise of an elusive underworld of counterfeiters and terrorists, who manufacture their toxins in non-descript laboratories and use the internet to market it around the world. Without a signature or a slogan, this face of terrorism could be terrifying, and terribly difficult to confront (Foreign Policy, 2010).
Title: Security: Fake Botox, Real Threat
Date: May 25, 2010
Source: CNS (James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies)
Abstract: Botulin neurotoxin (BoNT), a lethal poison, is normally closely guarded as a potential biological weapons agent. Writing in this month's Scientific American, Ken Coleman and Raymond Zilinskas explain why procuring BoNT has recently become much easier, as a result of a booming market for counterfeit versions of the beauty product Botox.
The fake cosmetic products generally contain real toxin, albeit in widely varying amounts. Tiny vials of bogus Botox could do little harm as terrorist weapons, but they do point to a growing number of illegal producers of BoNT who are a serious threat. Nothing prevents those illicit manufacturers from making and selling the toxin directly to terrorist organizations or stops terrorists from getting into the counterfeiting business themselves for profit and access to toxin.
BoNT is relatively easy to manufacture and a single molecule is believed potent enough to incapacitate a single nerve cell. Thanks to the Internet, consumers are driving the demand for counterfeits and anonymous Web-based suppliers of BoNT products could become portals for direct sales of pure toxin.
The authors advocate for a scientific approach to solving this modern problem. Collaborations between governments, law-enforcement agencies and legitimate pharmaceutical manufacturers to conduct detailed laboratory analyses of the counterfeits could begin to establish how many illegal producers are operating and provide evidence for future crackdowns to stem this potential threat (CNS, 2010).
Title: Chemical Terror Remains A Threat
Date: June 1, 2010
Source: Bio Prep Watch
Abstract: Jerome Hauer, the former assistant secretary for Public Health Emergency Preparedness at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, writes in an opinion piece that while chemical terrorism remains a threat in the U.S., President Obama should be praised for his nuclear nonproliferation efforts since he took office.
But according to Hauer’s commentary on fireengineering.com, some experts believe the focus on nuclear weaponry may be unintentionally taking "from other, more likely terrorist threats, such as biological and chemical agents, conventional explosives, or a combination thereof."
Hauer references two recent New York City threats that were thwarted before anyone was harmed – the car bomb detonation attempt in Times Square and the arrest of a suicidal college student who was traversing the city through the subway with a backpack full of sodium cyanide and flares.
"Unlike nuclear or biological weapons, chemical weapons are relatively easy and inexpensive to acquire and deploy," Hauer writes. "Commercially available chemicals, such as malathion and parathion – organophosphorus pesticides commonly used in agriculture – are highly toxic and have the potential to inflict significant casualties in minutes, especially if used by someone willing to die in the effort. Pesticides, cyanide and other poisons are readily accessible in the U.S., traveling via road and rail through our cities every day."
Hauer recommends arming first-responding units with better protective gear and up-to-date antidotes for a wide range of chemical threats.
"And it means
training and exercising specifically to deal with chemical terrorism," he
writes. "Specialized exercises by individual groups, and large-scale
exercises that involve the medical community and local, state and federal
agencies, help identify gaps in response protocols and strengthen partnerships
between agencies so they work together more effectively" (Bio Prep Watch, 2010).
Title: Scientist Accused Of Playing God After Creating Artificial Life By
Making Designer Microbe From Scratch - But Could It Wipe Out Humanity?
Date: June 3, 2010
Source: Daily Mail
Abstract: Scientists today lined up to air their fears over a genome pioneer's claims that he has created artificial life in the laboratory.
In a world first, which has alarmed many, maverick biologist and billionaire entrepreneur Craig Venter, built a synthetic cell from scratch.
The creation of the new life form, which has been nicknamed 'Synthia', paves the way for customised bugs that could revolutionise healthcare and fuel production, according to its maker.
But there are fears that the research, detailed in the journal Science, could be abused to create the ultimate biological weapon, or that one mistake in a lab could lead to millions being wiped out by a plague, in scenes reminiscent of the Will Smith film I Am Legend.
While some hailed the research as 'a defining moment in the history of
biology', others attacked it as 'a shot in the dark', with 'unparalleled
risks'. The team involved have been accused of 'playing God' and tampering
'with the essence of life'.
Dr Venter created the lifeform by synthesising a DNA code and injecting it into a single bacteria cell. The cell containing the man-made DNA then grew and divided, creating a hitherto unseen lifeform.
Kenneth Oye, a social scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology in the U.S., said: 'Right now, we are shooting in the dark as to
what the long-term benefits and long-term risks will be.'
Pat Mooney, of the ETC group, a technology watchdog with a special interest in synthetic biology, said: 'This is a Pandora's box moment - like the splitting of the atom or the cloning of Dolly the sheep, we will all have to deal with the fall-out from this alarming experiment.'
Dr David King, of the Human Genetics Alert watchdog, said: 'What is really dangerous is these scientists' ambitions for total and unrestrained control over nature, which many people describe as 'playing God'.
'Scientists' understanding of biology falls far short of their technical capabilities. We have learned to our cost the risks that gap brings, for the environment, animal welfare and human health.'
Professor Julian Savulescu, an Oxford University ethicist, said: 'Venter is creaking open the most profound door in humanity's history, potentially peeking into its destiny.
'He is not merely copying life artificially or modifying it by genetic engineering. He is going towards the role of God: Creating artificial life that could never have existed.'
He said the creation of the first designer bug was a step towards 'the creation of living beings with capacities and a nature that could never have naturally evolved'. The risks were 'unparalleled',' he added.
And he warned: 'This could be used in the future to make the most powerful bioweapons imaginable. The challenge is to eat the fruit without the worm.'
Dr Venter, who was instrumental in sequencing the human genome, had previously succeeded in transplanting one bug's genome - its entire cache of DNA - into another bacterium, effectively changing its species.
He has taken this one step further, transplanting not a natural genome but a man-made one. To do this, he read the DNA of Mycoplasma mycoides, a bug that infects goats, and recreated it piece by piece.
The fragments were then 'stitched together' and inserted into a bacterium from a different species.
There, it sprang to life, allowing the bug to grow and multiply, producing generations that were entirely artificial.
The transferred DNA contained around 850 genes - a fraction of the
20,000 or so contained in a human's genetic blueprint.
In future, bacterial 'factories' could be set up to manufacture artificial organisms designed for specific tasks such as medicines or producing clean biofuels.
The technology could also be harnessed to create environmentally friendly bugs capable of mopping up carbon dioxide or toxic waste.
Dr Venter, a 63-year-old Vietnam War veteran known for his showman tendencies, said last night: 'We are entering a new era where we're limited mostly by our imaginations.'
But the breakthrough, which took 15 years and £27.7million to achieve, opens an ethical Pandora's box. Ethicists said he is 'creaking open the most profound door in humanity's history' - with unparalleled risks.
Dr Venter, whose team of 20 scientists includes a Nobel laureate, likens the process to booting-up a computer.
Like a program without a hard drive, the DNA doesn't do anything by itself. But, when the software is loaded into the computer - in this case the second bacterium - amazing things are possible, he said.
Now that the scientist, whose J Craig Venter Institute has labs in California and Maryland, has proved the concept, the path is open for him to alter the 'recipe' to create any sort of organism he chooses.
At the top of his wishlist are bugs capable of producing clean biofuels and of sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Other possibilities include designer microbes that can mop up oil slicks or generate huge quantities of drugs, including the flu vaccine.
Any such organisms would be deliberately 'crippled' so that they cannot survive outside the lab, he claimed.
Brushing aside the ethical concerns of his work, Dr Venter wrote in his autobiography that it would allow 'a new creature to enter the world'.
'We have often been asked if this will be a step too far,' he said. 'I always reply that - so far at least - we are only reconstructing a diminished version of what is out there in nature.'
Last night, he claimed the breakthrough had changed his views on the definition of life. 'We have ended up with the first synthetic cell powered and controlled by a synthetic chromosome and made from four bottles of chemicals,' he said.
'It is pretty stunning when you just replace the DNA software in a cell and the cell instantly starts reading that new software and starts making a whole new set of proteins, and within a short while all the characteristics of the first species disappear and a new species emerges.
'That's a pretty important change in how we approach and think about life.'
The process was carried out on one of the simplest types of bacteria, under strict ethical guidelines. The research team insist that they cannot think of a day when the technology could be used to create animals or people from scratch.
Has he Created a Monster?
The creation of a living being in a laboratory is one of the staples of science fiction.
Now it is a scientific fact. Yesterday's announcement of the birth of a 'synthetic cell' - made by injecting a bacterium shell with genetic material created from scratch by scientists - raises many questions.
These range from the mundanely practical - how will this be useful? - to the profoundly philosophical - will we have to redefine what life is?
Depending on your viewpoint, it is either a powerful testament to human ingenuity or a terrible example of hubris - and the first step on a very dangerous road.
To understand what this development means, we need to discover who the team behind this innovation is.
It is led by Craig Venter, the world's greatest scientific provocateur, a 63-year-old Utah-born genius, a Vietnam veteran, billionaire, yachtsman, and an explorer. Above all he is a showman.
A master of self-publicity, he does not do things by halves; he led the private team which competed with scores of publicly funded scientists in the U.S. and UK to 'crack' the human genome by sequencing our DNA.
His rapid, innovative approach led to the possibility he would beat the scientific establishment.
So, to save face all round, the human genome was presented as a joint achievement. At around the same time, he began talking about making an artificial lifeform in the lab.
Not a Frankenstein's monster, or even a mouse, but a bacterium, one of the simplest living organisms. His blueprint was to be an unassuming and harmless little germ with only 485 genes (humans have around 25,000).
Venter talks grandly of a supercharged biotech revolution, with synthetic bacteria designed to produce biofuels, to mine precious metals from rocks and industrial waste, to digest oil slicks and render toxic spills harmless.
Who is Craig Venter?
Craig Venter is a controversial biologist and entrepreneur who led the effort by the private sector to sequence the human genome.
He was vilified by the scientific community for turning the project into a competitive race but his efforts did mean that the human genome was mapped three years earlier than expected.
Born in 1946, Dr Venter was an average scholar with a keen interest in surfing.
It was while serving in Vietnam and tending to wounded comrades that he was inspired to become a doctor.
During his medical training he excelled in research and was quick to realise the importance of decoding genes. In 1992 he set up the private Institute for Genomic Research. Then a mere three years later he stunned the scientific establishment by revealing the first complete genome of a free-living organism that causes childhood ear infections and meningitis.
In 2005 he founded the private company Synthetic Genomics, with the aim of engineering new life forms the would produce alternative fuels.
He was listed on Time Magazine's 100 list of the most influential people in both 2007 and 2008.
Scientists could even create bacteria which can produce novel drugs and vaccines, or organisms engineered to live on Mars and other planets.
The potential is huge - but so are the dangers. An artificial species, created in the lab, might not 'obey the rules' of the natural world - after all, every living being on Earth has evolved over three billion years, when a myriad of competing species have had to share the same increasingly crowded environment.
It is possible to imagine a synthetic microbe going on the rampage, perhaps wiping out all the world's crop plants or even humanity itself.
Synthetic biology also challenges our most cherished notions of what life itself actually is. Non-scientists might not realise that we have, as yet, no proper definition of life.
A diamond is not alive; a baboon clearly is. But what about a virus? Viruses, which are even simpler than bacteria, have a genetic code written in DNA (or its cousin RNA).
The stuff viruses are made from is the stuff of life - protein coats and so on - yet they cannot reproduce independently.
Like diamonds, they can be grown into crystals - and you certainly cannot crystallise baboons. Most biologists say viruses are not alive, and that true biology begins with bacteria.
So is Synthia, Venter's tentative name for his new critter, alive? It is certainly not the result of Darwinian evolution, one of the (many) definitions of life. It is more 'alive' than any virus but it is the product of Man, not of evolution. Its genetic code is simple enough to be stored on a computer (but then again, so is ours).
Whatever the answer to this fundamental question, Venter's breakthrough is certainly the final rebuttal to the old notion of a vital spark - a mysterious essence that divides the quick from the dead. If you can carry around a genome on a computer memory stick and make a cell using a few simple chemicals, then the old idea of 'vitalism' is truly dead.
Of course, this is early days. It is not yet clear if Venter can negotiate the final step - creating a whole cell from scratch, using no bits of existing living organisms at all.His bacterium is likely to be weak and feeble; we are a long way from synthetic super-plagues, and even further from an artificial animal or plant. But it is hard to escape the feeling that a boundary has been crossed. The problem is, it is far from clear where we go from here (Daily Mail, 2012).
Title: The Botox-Terror Connection
Date: June 9, 2010
Source: New York Times
Abstract: Today’s idea: The active ingredient in Botox could pose a grave national security threat if terrorists get hold of enough of the highly lethal toxin on the counterfeit market or figure out how to make it, two biological weapons experts warn.
And you thought people with cosmetically frozen facial expressions were scary. Writing in the latest Scientific American, two bio-terror experts, Ken Coleman and Raymond A. Zilinskas, warn about the proliferation of international counterfeiters of the wrinkle-smoothing drug Botox. The worry is that through the counterfeiters, terrorists will be able to obtain or make lethal forms of the drug’s active ingredient, botulinum neurotoxin.
The stuff isn’t much of a concern in a typical cosmetic Botox dose — its presence is so minuscule it would take hundreds of vials to kill a person — but it wouldn’t take much to wreak widespread havoc, the two say. As Foreign Policy summarizes their work:
"… Botulinum neurotoxin, in its pure form, is “the deadliest substance known to science,” according to Coleman and Zilinskas. It is grouped with the world’s most lethal potential biological weapons agents, sharing ‘select agent’ status with the pathogens that cause smallpox, anthrax and plague. How potent is it? One gram could be lethal to 14,285 people if ingested, 1.25 million people if inhaled, and 8.3 million people if injected. The toxin particles block receptors on nerve endings, silencing the nerves and paralyzing surrounding muscles."
Coleman and Zilinskas fear that terrorists may make the connection between the cosmetic uses and the deadly toxin, and find a way to produce or buy the dangerous stuff on the Internet. “As security analysts, we undertook two years ago to explore the size and nature of this illicit global trade,” they write, “and have come away gravely concerned that a deadly, but once relatively inaccessible, weapons agent is now becoming as easy to get or to make as a roadside bomb” (New York Times, 2010).Title: Vaccine Against 2009 Pandemic Flu Also Protects Mice Against 1918 Strain
Date: June 16, 2010
Abstract: In 2005, a group of American scientists resurrected one of history’s deadliest killer – the H1N1 flu virus of 1918 that killed approximately 50 million people worldwide. Using samples from a patient buried in Alaskan permafrost, they deciphered the virus’s genome and structure, rebuilt it from scratch and infected mice with it.
The move was understandably a controversial one. It has led to a greater understanding of the 1918 pandemic, and other important flu strains, but scientists have cited the possibility that this infamous killer could be accidentally released from a lab (as has happened before with other H1N1 strains). Worse still, it could be developed into a bioterror weapon. But according to Rafael Medina from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, these worries may be unfounded. He has shown that since 1918, the world has gained an ally that will protect people against the deadly strain should it ever reemerge. That ally is a most unexpected one – the H1N1 swine flu virus from 2009.
The virus that went pandemic last year is actually a fourth-generation descendant of the 1918 virus. It’s part of a ‘pandemic era’ that was kicked off by the original strain and that has lasted for almost a century. Despite the 91-year gulf between them, the 1918 and 2009 viruses have some important similarities that set them apart from seasonal strains. This likeness means that antibodies that target one strain should work against the other. Indeed, elderly people who survived the 1918 pandemic still carry such defensive antibodies, and these can neutralise the 2009 virus too. This probably explains why elderly people, who are usually most at risk from flu viruses, were largely spared the brunt of the recent pandemic.
Now, Medina has found that the protection works the other way too, at least in mice. He gave mice the vaccine against the 2009 pandemic or antibody transfusions from humans who had themselves been vaccinated. Either way, the rodents produced antibodies that completely protected them against extremely lethal doses of the 1918 virus. Without the vaccine, all of the mice were dead within 8 days. With it, they barely showed any signs of illness and lost trivial amounts of weight. By contrast, vaccines against other strains of seasonal flu failed to provide any sort of protection against the 1918 monster.
Of course, this study has only looked at mice and Medina acknowledges that the next step will be to see if the 2009 vaccine will protect against 1918 flu in other animal models, such as guinea pigs, monkeys and ferrets. But for now, the results are encouraging
The 2009 pandemic spread worldwide and it is still the dominant strain of seasonal flu. Huge numbers of people were vaccinated when the pandemic hit, and the World Health Organisation has recommended that the standard annual flu vaccine should also target the pandemic strain. This means that large swathes of the population should now be immune to the 1918 virus should it ever rear its proteins again. It’s good news for scientist too; as Medina says, the current vaccine “should also serve as an additional layer of safety for researchers working with the 1918 influenza virus” (Discovery, 2010).
Title: Experts Warn Bioterror Could Be Future Of War
Date: June 21, 2010
Source: Bio Prep Watch
Abstract: The continued proliferation of chemical, biological, nuclear and radiological weapons is a major concern for U.S. military officials and could end up changing the battleground for troops according to experts.
Commanders under U.S. Central Command recently expressed such concerns during a Special Operations Forces Industry Conference, nationaldefensemagazine.org reports. While the panelists agreed that they did not know where the next wars will be fought, they agreed troops should be prepared for a number of possibilities, including chemical and biological attacks.
One concern expressed by Air Force Major General Charles Cleveland is that the Defense Department has not invested enough in next-generation protective gear to protect troops from a combination of different terrorist attacks, including biological or chemical weapons.
Air Force Brig. Gen. Richard Haddad, commander of Special Operations Command Korea, voiced similar concerns, noting that tensions remain high in North Korea and South Korea, following the March sinking of a warship. He told nationaldefensemagazine.org that North Korea recently threatened to attack South Korea if the U.N. leveled sanctions against them.
“We’ve heard those provocations before and are waiting to see what happens,” Hadda told nationaldefensemagazine.org. “I have no question in my mind that they will do quite well in war.”
Hadda noted that U.S. operator needs would include infiltration programs and radio communications (Bio Prep Watch, 2010).
Title: Monkeypox Rising In Wake Of Smallpox Eradication
Date: August 31, 2010
Abstract: Some thirty years after authorities doled out the last dose of smallpox vaccine, the world faces another multiplying menace: monkeypox.
A new study suggests that the monkeypox virus, which the smallpox vaccine also grants immunity against, is now at least 20 times as common as it was shortly after victory over smallpox had been declared.
"The eradication of smallpox was one of the greatest achievements known to man," lead researcher Anne Rimoin of the University of California, Los Angeles School of Public Health told Reuters Health. "But a consequence of ceasing smallpox vaccinations is that now the world's population is vulnerable to other (related viruses) such as monkeypox."
While the infection is somewhat less serious than smallpox, it can still scar and even kill its victims. And in contrast to its cousin, monkeypox is not only able to jump between humans, but can infect through contact with small animals that harbor the virus. As a result, its control could be all the more challenging, warned Rimoin.
Converging political, social, economic and environmental factors make African nations -- in particular, the Democratic Republic of the Congo -- especially vulnerable to the infection, she explained. The virus's favorite animal hosts such as squirrels and monkeys are endemic there, and civil war has forced many people to rely heavily on hunting wildlife for sustenance. Some have even migrated deep into the animals' forest habitats to seek refuge from the violence.
"The virus has probably been on the rise for years, but the country lacked surveillance," Rimoin noted. "To find disease, you have to look for it."
So she and her colleagues, who included many local Congolese, did just that. Using Chinese bicycles like pack mules to transport supplies, and with funding from the U.S. National Institutes of Health, they surveyed nine local health zones for signs of monkeypox between November 2005 and November 2007. They identified 760 cases of laboratory-confirmed monkeypox.
Compared to similar surveillance conducted in the 1980s, Rimoin's team found a 20-fold increase in monkeypox cases -- far more than they ever expected to find. In a single health zone, the average number of yearly cases rose from less than 1 to roughly 14 per 10,000 people.
Most of the victims were born after smallpox vaccination was officially discontinued in 1980. Vaccinated individuals were more than five times less likely to become infected with monkeypox compared to those without the vaccine's protection, the researchers report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"What we're seeing is a harbinger of things to come," said Rimoin. She warned that the virus could grow more widespread with further deforestation, continued movement of people from rural to urban areas, bushmeat trafficking and importation of exotic pets.
"And every new infection provides the virus with the opportunity to evolve into a more serious or transmissible virus," she added.
It's already clear that the Democratic Republic of the Congo isn't the only home for the virus. The Republic of the Congo and Sudan also reported cases in recent years. And in 2003, monkeypox arrived in the U.S. Midwest with imported African rodents, before spreading among prairie dogs and sickening 90 people.
Experts fear an even more virulent and efficient virus could return to the western world.
"The higher the rate of new infections, the greater the chance that travelers from the U.S. will be exposed, and that the disease will be imported into the U.S. -- possibly establishing itself in U.S. rodent populations," Dr. Dan DiGiulio of Stanford University School of Medicine in California, who was not involved in the study, noted in an email to Reuters Health.
So what can be done to keep the virus at bay? Rimoin suggested that behavioral interventions may be the most effective strategy at this point, including teaching people at risk of infection what animals may be most likely to carry monkeypox and how to handle them to avoid infection, as well as isolating infected individuals.
Continued active surveillance is also important to better identify the animal reservoirs and rates of animal-to-human versus human-to-human transmission. "Once we understand more about this virus and what it may mean for us," she said, "we may be able to consider specific interventions, perhaps vaccinating groups that are at significant risk of infection."
DiGiulio added the need for animal importation policies, and research into effective antiviral treatments and vaccine development.
after the eradication of smallpox, pox viruses still deserve our close
attention," said Rimoin. "And we shouldn't only worry about its
accidental introduction but also as a deliberate terrorist release" (Reuters, 2010).
Title: Russian Expert Says Terror Networks Searching For Bioweapons
Date: October 6, 2010
Source: Bio Prep Watch
Abstract: The head of Russia’s Security Council recently announced that the country’s security agencies believe international terror networks are doubling their efforts to gain access to biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction.
Nikolai Patrushev voiced his concerns during a recent security conference at the Black Sea Resort, in Sochi, Russia, MonstersAndCritics.com reports.
“We have such indications,” Patrushev said, MonstersAndCritics.com reports. “Worldwide, terrorists have also tried to buy radioactive material for a dirty bomb.”
Following the Security Council meeting, Patrushev told the press that intelligence reports indicate that energy production would be one area targeted by terrorists. He specifically named the Suez Canal in Egypt and the Strait of Gibraltar as potential targets.
Patrushev also said that he believes al-Qaeda is involved in the bloody conflict unfolding in Russia's Caucasus region, MonstersAndCritics.com reports. The region, which has seen two Chechen wars, could be of great interest to terrorists.
“Al-Qaida's main goal is to establish an Islamic caliphate spanning Central Asia, North and Central Africa and the North Caucasus,” Patrushev said, MonstersAndCritics.com reports (Bio Prep Watch, 2010).
Title: EU Member States Urged To Prepare For Biological, Chemical attacks
Date: November 9, 2010
Source: Bio Prep Watch
Abstract: As a result of a rise in terrorist attacks, European Union member states were recently urged to include chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons attacks in their emergency response planning.
This decision came about after a November 8, 2010, meeting between EU justice and home affairs ministers, SofiaEcho.com reports.
The ministers implored the EU states to integrate the response elements of police, rescue, intelligence, health and communication with CBRN risks to create new preventative plans. These plans would incorporate simulation exercises and information exchanged among EU states to solve problems at the EU level and to increase public awareness about potential risk.
The ministers said that public awareness must be raised so that people know the appropriate actions to take and that the member states had the first responsibility in protecting people against CBRN attacks, according to SofiaEcho.com.
Since 2002, the EU has taken several steps to respond to attacks of this nature, including a 2008 Europol program to develop a European CBRN database.
While some EU member
states has specific response and preparedness plans to deal with attacks
involving CBRN materials or terrorist threats, others had specific plans for
nuclear or radiological risks, general emergency plans with all-hazard
approaches, emergency plans to deal with CBRN threats or specific procedures to
deal with CBRN material attacks, the EU ministers said, according to
SofiaEcho.com (Bio Prep Watch, 2010).
Title: Rift Valley Fever Virus: A Real Bioterror Threat
Date: December 30, 2010
Source: Journal of Bioterrorism & Defense
Abstract: Rift Valley fever virus is recognized as an important bioterror and agroterror threat to Western countries including the United States. Once introduced, the virus would be readily spread by native mosquito populations and potentially become endemic. While infection often results in severe morbidity and mortality in both humans and livestock, there are currently no FDA or USDA-licensed vaccines. The development of effective countermeasures and implementing surveillance and diagnostic capabilities are critical. Ultimately, the presence of RVFV would lead to severe long-term negative impacts for healthcare, agricultural and travel economic sectors.
Rift Valley fever virus (RVFV) is a zoonotic arthropod-borne pathogen that often results in severe morbidity and mortality in both humans and livestock. The lack of prophylactic and therapeutic measures, the potential for human-to-human transmission, and the significant threat to livestock associated with RVFV make this pathogen a serious bioterror threat.
RVFV can be propagated easily and efficiently with simple cell culture systems in vitro. The potential to use RVFV as a bioweapon is further enhanced by the ability to manipulate the virus through either rational genetic approaches or through various passaging schemes to produce altered agents that could escape detection and/ or existing prevention and control methods. As such, RVF virus is considered a potential threat as a biological weapon that could have dramatic direct (morbidity and death) and indirect (international trade restrictions) impact in countries that are currently free of the virus. Because of its clear disease potential, aerosolized RVFV could be used as a bioterror or agroterror weapon to threaten humans and ruminants and devastate the economy. Importantly, unlike other potential bioterror agents (i.e., Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever virus, Nipah virus and Ebolavirus), the vectors for RVFV transmission are present in the Western hemisphere.
New highly fatal diseases have emerged or reappeared during the last 4 decades such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), Legionella, hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (Sin Nombre virus), Nipah virus encephalitis, avian influenza, West Nile encephalitis and Rift Valley fever with adverse global or regional public health and economic impact. Most emerging infectious diseases are the result of epizoonotic transmission from animals to man. RVFV presents one of the most important non-endemic bioterror threats to the Western hemisphere. RVFV was first identified in 1931 as the causative agent of enzootic hepatitis of sheep in Kenya and has since then spread across most of the African continent and more recently emerged on the Arabian peninsula. RVF manifests itself in the vast majority of individuals (90% show clinical signs of disease) that become infected, unlike a WNV infection, which has no clinical manifestation in 80% of infected individuals. Historically, while infections in humans are typically mild and present as selflimiting febrile illnesses, RVFV infections progress to more severe disease including fulminant hepatitis, encephalitis, retinitis, blindness, or a hemorrhagic syndrome in approximately 2% of affected individuals. However, statistics from recent outbreaks suggest that the case fatality rate from RVFV infections is significantly increasing (>30%) in naive populations. For example, during the 2006-2007 Rift Valley fever outbreak in East Africa, RVF was diagnosed in over 1000 patients in multiple locations in Kenya, Somalia and Tanzania and over 300 patients died. As recently as 2010, there was a RVFV outbreak in South Africa with at least 237 human cases reported including twenty-six deaths http://www.nicd.ac.za/outbreaks/ rvf/docs/RVF_Interim_Report_2010_10_01.pdf.
There are similarities between the public’s awareness of RVFV and its perception of the West Nile virus (WNV) threat before 1999. WNV was not considered a threat to the USA prior to its emergence in New York in 1999. However, within six years, WNV had become endemic across the USA. Interestingly, while the WNV transmission route is limited to two mosquito genera (Aedes and Culex) and has a limited effective host range, RVFV is readily transmitted through a broad range of mosquito genera including Aedes, Anopheles, Culex, Eretmapoites and Mansonia, and by other vectors including sand flies. Importantly, RVFV has a much broader effective host-range compared to WNV, capable of causing severe disease in sheep, goat, cattle, water buffalo, and humans. Recent studies have illustrated the ability of RVFV to utilize the dominant mosquito species of a given geographical location, which indicates that there is no natural blockade to protect naive countries from the spread of the virus. This presents a real threat for RVFV incursions into other parts of the world, including Europe and the United States. However, differences in RVFV transmission rates can be affected by local mosquito populations.
Human RVFV infections are usually preceded by transmission from wild to domestic animal hosts, recognized by sudden and devastating impact on livestock. In sheep, mortality in lambs under 2 weeks of age approaches 100%, reaches 30% in older animals and abortions approach 100%. Cattle also show high abortion rates (up to 100%) with adult mortality averaging 10%.
Because of the potential for severe consequences during such outbreaks, RVFV is considered a major zoonotic threat to the US. Homeland Security Presidential Directive/HSPD-9 established a national policy to defend the agriculture and food system against terrorist attacks, major disasters, and other emergencies (http://merln.ndu.edu/ archivepdf/hls/WH/20040203-2.pdf), including the establishment of a National Veterinary Stockpile (NVS). RVFV is #3 on the list of the 17 most dangerous animal threats, behind only highly pathogenic avian Influenza and Food and mouth disease (http://www.aphis.usda.gov/vs/ ep/functions.html). RVFV is classified as an Overlap Select Agent by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and as a high-consequence pathogen with the potential for international spread by the World Organization for Animal Health (Office International des Épizooties). RVFV is also classified as a Category A High Priority Pathogen by the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) (http://www3. niaid.nih.gov/topics/BiodefenseRelated/Biodefense/research/CatA. htm) and is on the Center for Disease Control (CDC) Bioterror Agent list (http://www.bt.cdc.gov/agent/agentlist-category.asp#a). As described previously, RVFV is clearly recognized as a biothreat by The US Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Proliferation and Terrorism and several risk assessment studies have illustrated the potential spread of RVFV once introduced into Europe or the USA (http://ppmq.ars.usda.gov/research/ publications/Publications.htm?seq_no_115=235466&pf=1) (http:// nabc.ksu.edu/assets/uploads/rift_valley_report.pdf). RVFV working groups have produced scientific opinions, threat assessments and recommended action plans (surveillance, diagnostics, vector control), for the management of RVFV including the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) Centers for Epidemiology and Animal Health multi-agency and university working group on RVFV (reviewed in Kasari et al, the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service’s (ARS) Arthropod-Borne Animal Diseases Research Laboratory (ABADRL) in collaboration with ARS, Center for Medical, and Veterinary Entomology and the USDA, APHIS.
(http://ppmq.ars.usda.gov/research/publications/Publications. htm?seq_no_115=235466&pf=1), the Global Disease Detection Division at CDC-Kenya along with the Regional Emergency Office for Africa (REOA) Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Global Emerging Infections Surveillance Systems office of the U.S. Army Medical Research Unit in Nairobi, in collaboration with the Kenya Ministries of Health and of Livestock (reviewed in) and ARBO-ZOONET, reviewed in Korketaas et al. Taken together, these works strongly conclude that RVFV is a real threat and it is only a matter of when – not if – RVFV is intentionally or accidentally introduced into the Western hemisphere.
Surveillance & Diagnosis
The capacity for surveillance, handling large numbers of samples and diagnostics is extremely limited in the US and other Western nations should RVFV be introduced/emerge, with a low probability of early detection and response with control measures. Physicians and veterinarians are unaccustomed to the clinical signs of RVFV which will likely delay a positive diagnosis. The ability to handle human and animal samples and specimens is problematic because RVFV must be handled under high containment, and a very limited number of such facilities are available.
In endemic areas, RVFV infection is most often diagnosed using a combination of clinical judgment (recognition of acute hemorrhagic fever cases) and available diagnostic testing. Newer, multiplexed PCR and reverse-transcription (RT)-PCR enzyme hybridization assays are being developed that can simultaneously detect multiple pathogens, including many hemorrhagic fever viruses, and should be used in conjunction with ELISA-based methodologies. A focus on practical field deployable diagnostics is critical since RVF outbreaks occur most commonly in remote locations. Importantly, the real-time RT-loop-mediated isothermal amplification (RT-LAMP) assay for RVFV presents a similar sensitivity and specificity as real-time PCR, but is a single-step reaction that is faster and less expensive, and can be assessed with the unaided eye.
Public health and animal health agencies agree that it is now a priority to develop RVFV countermeasures (whether for humans, animals, or both: the “One Health” initiative) that will yield highly effective, long-term protective immunity. The ideal RVF vaccine would confer protection after a single dose, be nonpathogenic with no potential for reversion to wild-type virus, be safe for production in standard vaccine facilities, and present long-term stability at ambient temperatures. The development of safe and efficacious RVFV vaccines has proven to be quite difficult (summarized in Bouloy and Flick 2009 and Bird et al. 2009 and references therein). Unfortunately, there is currently no licensed vaccine available for human use in the USA or Europe.
In addition, because of the animal-trade embargoes imposed during RVF epizootics, the design of commercial livestock vaccines should allow for the differentiation of naturally infected and vaccinated animals (DIVA). A vaccine to prevent the amplification cycle of RVFV in livestock would greatly reduce the risk of human infection by preventing livestock epizootics. The partially attenuated Smithburn modified live virus vaccine was developed for livestock applications, but it can lead to abortions or teratology in pregnant animals. In addition, the risk of reversion to full virulence precludes its use in countries where RVFV is not known to be endemic. A formalin-inactivated version of this vaccine is available, but increased production costs combined with the need of multiple inoculations to protect animals present critical disadvantages in outbreak situations. A formalin-inactivated RVFV vaccine, TSI-GSD-200, has limited availability in the US for protection of military personnel and laboratory workers. As with most inactivated antiviral vaccines, several inoculations (including annual boosters) are needed to maintain immunity. In addition, this vaccine is in short supply and expensive.
While live attenuated and genetically engineered RVFV strains are highly immunogenic and do not require boosting, they do present safety concerns regarding reversion to virulence. MP12 is efficacious in livestock and was recently tested in human clinical trials with promising results. However, one study showed that abortion (4%) and teratogenic effects (14%) occurred in pregnant sheep, and since MP12 attenuation is based on several single point mutations, concerns about reversion are valid. Clone 13, a natural RVFV isolate, a MP12/Clone 13 reassortant, R566 (M. Bouloy et al., unpublished data) and a ΔNSs/ΔNSm ZH501 strain are being developed that have excellent preclinical safety profiles. These vaccine candidates have NSs or both NSs/NSm gene partial or complete deletions which prevent the virus from hijacking the type 1 IFN pathway, make reversion almost impossible, and satisfy the DIVA concept. Other approaches include expression of RVFV glycoproteins by recombinant Lumpy skin disease virus (LSDV) and adenovirus-based platforms and alphavirus replicon vectors.
Recent RVFV vaccine developments focus on virus-like particle (VLP)-based platforms which avoid issues associated with liveattenuated vaccines. Expression of structural proteins of many nonenveloped and enveloped viruses leads to the formation of VLPs and references therein). Structural similarity with the wild type virus combined with the lack of viral genetic material makes this vaccine platform ideal to generate safe vaccine candidates. Efficient generation of RVF VLPs has been demonstrated by several groups using either mammalian cell or insect cell derived systems. Promising immunological data (e.g., high neutralizing antibody titers) and full protection in mice and rat challenge studies were achieved, demonstrating that VLP-based RVFV vaccine candidates are a promising RVFV vaccine approach.
Alternatively, DNA-based (virus-free) vaccines such as gene-gun immunizations with cDNA encoding RVFV structural proteins have been shown to induce neutralizing antibody titers in mice, but some immunized animals still developed clinical signs of infection after sublethal challenge.
For treatment of symptomatic RVF, no highly effective RVFVspecific therapeutics currently exist. However, beyond supportive care, there is hope that viable antiviral therapeutic options will emerge. With the exception of ribavirin as an approved drug, few compounds are licensed as approved antiviral drugs for the hemorrhagic fever viruses. Furthermore, the effectiveness of ribavirin is limited due to side effect complications and lack of specificity. The arylmethyldiene rhodanine derivative LJ001 prevents virus–cell fusion and has broad-spectrum activity against enveloped viruses such as RVFV, and might provide utility as a therapeutic. Potential broadspectrum therapeutic activity has also been suggested for bavituximab which targets phosphatidylserine on enveloped viruses and virusinfected cells. Pyrazinecarboxamide compounds have also been shown to be useful for post exposure antiviral therapy as broad spectrum antiviral inhibitors.
Outbreak Prediction & Control
RVF presents an informative model for assessing the impact of climate and ecology on its periodic reemergence and spread, as well as for the potential that modern technologies and public health advancements can contribute to disease forecasting, prevention, and control. While important risk assessment and surveillance strategies for RVFV in Western countries that rely on statistical tools including landscape epidemiology and phylogeography have been suggested, to date no plans have been officially implemented. As described in Breiman et al. 2010, RVF is a disease associated with a complex set of factors that make disease outbreaks likely including animals, mosquitoes, climate, ecology, and commercial trade. Its prevention and control is not straightforward. Livestock trade practices has moved the virus long distances (potentially including the movement of infected mosquitoes), creating the potential for disease in regions without previous exposure to the virus. Landscape attributes influence spatial variations in disease risk or incidence. As described by Lambin et al. 2010, integrated analyses at the landscape scale allows a better understanding of interactions between changes in ecosystems and climate, land use and human behavior, and the ecology of vectors and animal hosts of infectious agents. As noted in LaBeaud et al. 2010, because RVFV outbreaks generally follow anomalous heavy rainfall in endemic areas, meteorological forecasting of extreme weather events has been shown to be a useful tool to predict RVFV activity. Future research will need to focus on providing early warnings so that prediction can have greater impact on mobilization of preventive interventions and outbreak management.
RVFV was reportedly weaponized by the US offensive biological weapons program, illustrating the real threat and utility of RVFV as a bioweapon (http://cns.miis.edu/cbw/possess.htm). Bioterrorism, trade, world travel and the presence of mosquito species capable of transmitting the virus make RVFV a major threat to Western countries. Coupled with the fact that there is currently no FDA-or USDAapproved RVFV vaccine for human or veterinary use, there is a clear need for more RVFV vaccine research and development. It has been proposed that a single infected person or animal which is able to enter Europe or the USA would be sufficient to initiate a major outbreak before RVFV would be detected. This would quickly lead to the spread of RVFV and cause a severe strain on health care systems as human infections become more common. Wide-spread public panic might also ensue because of the knowledge that a hemorrhagic fever is circulating in the population. A severe economic impact is inevitable and will be felt in almost all economic sectors, from agriculture to healthcare and travel, likely for years post-identification. Although important strides have been made regarding awareness and preparation for RVFV, this pathogen still presents one of the most important viral disease threats to the Western hemisphere (Journal of Bioterrorism & Defense, 2010).
Title: Report Warns Of Bioterror Attack On Public Transportation
Date: December 28, 2010
Source: Bio Prep Watch
Abstract: A USA Today examination has found that, despite the government's attempts to upgrade rail and subway defenses against terrorist attacks, there are major holes in the public transportation system that may be impossible to fix.
These security holes may leave over four billion passengers vulnerable, whereas the tighter security at airports affects fewer than 700 million people. There have been six terrorist plots that have targeted the U.S. rail and subway systems since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, USA Today reports.
"Mass transit systems are much less secure than the aviation sector or certain key government buildings," Clark Kent Ervin, the former inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, said, according to USA Today.
The Transportation Security Administration has mostly given the responsibility of rail security to local governments, which USA Today said does not have the money and capabilities to make systems secure.
"We know that some terrorist groups see rail and subways as being more vulnerable, because there's not the type of screening that you find in aviation," Ervin said, USA Today reports.
It is possible, according to USA Today's report, that the only way to truly secure rail and subway cars is to screen every passenger.
"Mass transit systems in the U.S. are vast, a literal black hole," James Carafano, a homeland security expert at The Heritage Foundation, said, according to USA Today. "They would consume every cent we spend on homeland security, and there still would be vast vulnerabilities" (Bio Prep Watch, 2011).
Title: The Threat Of Bioterrorism And The Ability To
Date: December 29, 2010
Source: Homeland Security Today
Abstract: A day after Congress passed legislation to overhaul food safety laws and on the heels of the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) disclosure that terrorism intelligence threat streams indicated Al Qaeda (AQ) has discussed an attack on US soil by contaminating "salad bars" and “buffets” with poisons, a Salmonella attack by Mother Nature sickened 89 people (23 percent of whom had to be hospitalized) in 15 states and the District of Columbia, reported the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The outbreak appeared to be linked to contaminated alfalfa sprouts “at a national sandwich chain," CDC said in a statement. And it was widespread. According to CDC, 50 people were sickened in Illinois, 14 in Missouri, nine in Indiana, three in Wisconsin and two in Pennsylvania. Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Iowa, Massachusetts, New York, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and the District of Columbia all reported at least one confirmed case of Salmonella-induced illness linked to the reputedly contaminated alfalfa sprouts.
According to a variety of public health authorities, this and other foodborne outbreaks during the last several years “should be a wake-up call” to what could happen if terrorists were able to pull off an attack on the nation’s food supplies with pathogenic bacteria like the Salmonella recently found on Alfalfa sprouts that can be found at salad bars and buffets across the nation. Even though the sprouts are washed, CDC and other authorities said the only way the pathogenic bacteria on them can be killed is by thoroughly cooking the sprouts.
Biological weapons have been called “the poor man’s atom bomb” because the capacity to produce and spread pathogens requires relatively little in the way of sophisticated technology. And as recent federal and private sector studies have concluded, surveillance, reporting and situational awareness capabilities remain deficient for both naturally occurring and terrorism-caused incidents of biological foodborne contamination.
Unintended contamination of food provides an example of the potential widespread threat that could be posed by terrorists. Eight months ago, more than 500 million eggs had to be recalled in response to a nationwide Salmonella outbreak federal authorities said they linked to two egg manufacturing plants. At least 1,300 people are believed to have been sickened by the tainted eggs between May and July, or roughly 200 a week, according to CDC. The historical average is about 50 Salmonella-related illnesses a week. The government eventually said it determined that unsanitary processing practices are believed to have been responsible for the contamination.
A year earlier, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ordered a recall of Salmonella contaminated peanut butter and products containing peanut butter made by a specific company. In this case, federal investigators also linked the Salmonella Typhimurium strain in the poisoned peanut butter to improper food processing procedures. The investigations also reportedly found recurring shoddy inspection practices.
What was particularly alarming was that “this [was an ingredient-driven outbreak; that is, potentially contaminated ingredients affected many different products that were distributed through various channels and consumed in various settings,” FDA said.
Moreover, in each of these outbreaks, the actual number of people who were sickened is probably much higher. CDC’s Dr. Christopher Braden, a medical epidemiologist who currently serves as Acting Director, Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases, explained that only about one in 30 cases of Salmonella-induced illness during an outbreak is reported to health officials.
CDC considers Salmonella to be a "Category B" pathogen because it’s moderately easy to disseminate.
In 1984, followers of the bizarre religious cult, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, contaminated local salad bars in Dalles, Oregon with Salmonella Typhimurium in an attempt to incapacitate so many voting residents of Wasco County that the cult’s own candidates would win the county elections. The attack sickened 751 people and required 45 to be hospitalized.
In 1996, a disgruntled laboratory worker deliberately infected food to be consumed by co-workers with Shigella Dysenteria Type 2, causing 12 people to be sickened, four of whom had to be hospitalized and five sent to emergency rooms.
In May 2003, a supermarket employee pleaded guilty to intentionally poisoning 200 pounds of ground beef with an insecticide containing nicotine. Although the tainted meat was sold in only one store, more than 100 people, including about 40 children, were sickened.
About 40,000 cases of Salmonella poisoning are reported every year in the US, CDC said. Counterterrorism officials told HSToday.us that that number undoubtedly would be “much, much higher” as the result of a terrorist attack, and that it would take “precious time” before public health authorities realized that the escalating number of sickened persons were actually victims of a biological attack.
In the case of a Salmonella terrorist attack, the young, elderly and persons with weakened immune systems would be most at risk, CDC said.
According to CDC, there are an estimated 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths annually from food that has been inadvertently contaminated by pathogens - at a cost of somewhere around $35 billion. Based on current population data, this roughly translates to an estimate that, each year, one out of every four Americans will develop a foodborne illness.
According to a report by CDC researchers in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, the leading causes of foodborne disease outbreaks in 2007 were due to Norovirus and Salmonella contamination of mostly poultry, beef and leafy greens. But surveillance data also indicated that no cause was ever determined for about one-third of foodborne disease outbreaks in nearly a quarter of victims.
Counterterror authorities said this data illustrates the difficulty officials will have in quickly determining that an outbreak is the result of an attack and just how widespread the attack is when so many people who get sick from contaminated food either do not see their doctor or go to a hospital.
Terror Bio-Attack is
DHS has stated that “the prospect of a mass-scale food contamination event is of particular concern because the nation is subject to major unintentional foodborne illness outbreaks. Experts reason that … an individual or individuals with malevolent aims could reproduce these outbreaks with more dire consequences.”
“Now, can you imagine what a well-coordinated terrorist attack could do if they’re using a really nasty pathogen?” asked a veteran counterterrorism official who has been dealing with the threat of a biological terrorist attack.
The October 2003 Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and FDA report, Risk Assessment for Food Terrorism and Other Food Safety Concerns, noted that just “major outbreaks of foodborne illness occur all too frequently,” and sometimes affect hundreds of thousands of people.
“Among the largest reported outbreaks caused by unintentional biological contamination,” the report stated, “was an outbreak of Salmonella Typhimurium infection that sickened approximately 170,000 people in 1985 and was linked to post-pasteurization contamination of milk from a US dairy plant. An outbreak of hepatitis A caused by tainted clams affected nearly 300,000 people in China in 1991 and may be the largest foodborne disease incident in history.”
Then, “in 1994, an outbreak of Salmonella Enteritidis infection linked to a contaminated ice cream pre-mix sickened an estimated 224,000 people in 41 states in the US,” and “in 1996, about 8,000 children in Japan became ill, and some died, after eating E. coli 0157:H7-tainted radish sprouts served in school lunches.”
“In today's global marketplace, the contamination of food in one country can have a significant effect on public health in other parts of the world,” the joint HHS-FDA report emphasized, noting that “in 1989, approximately 25,000 people in 30 states in the US were sickened by Salmonella Chester in cantaloupes imported from Mexico.”
And, “in 1996 and 1997, 2,500 people in 21 states in the US and two Canadian provinces developed Cyclospora infections after eating tainted Guatemalan raspberries.”
“If an unintentional contamination of one food, such as clams, can affect 300,000 individuals, a concerted, deliberate attack on food could be devastating, especially if a more dangerous chemical, biological or radionuclear agent were used,” the HHS-FDA report concluded, adding, “it would be reasonable to assume that a terrorist using the food supply as a vehicle for attack would use an agent that would maximize the number of deaths associated with the contamination,” and that “many of these agents are the same pathogens that have been linked to significant outbreaks of foodborne illness due to unintentional contamination.”
A top government public health official told HSToday.us on background because of the politically sensitive nature of his position that while “most foodborne pathogens cause relatively mild self-limited illnesses, [they] certainly could cause nationwide distress. The ones which would have a greater potential for more serious life-threatening illnesses would include E. coli O157 and Botulism. The later is especially of great concern due to the fact that very miniscule amounts of the toxin are needed to contaminate food to cause the paralytic disease, and you don’t need viable replicating organisms - only the pre-formed toxin. The incubation period for both would be very short, within 24 hours or so depending on dosage.”
In 2000, the World Health Organization (WHO) adopted a resolution stating it was "[d]eeply concerned that foodborne illness associated with microbial pathogens, biotoxins and chemical contaminants in food represent a serious threat to the health of millions of people in the world."
The recent scare that Al Qaeda or one of its affiliated movements (AQAM) might try to carry out a biological attack in the US was brought to light by a DHS intelligence alert distributed to selected hotel and restaurant executives. Officials said the alert was in response to a “credible” threat. But this is isn't a new AQ threat, veteran WMD counterterrorism intelligence officials stressed.
The officials told HSToday.us that they’ve been aware “for some time” of AQ’s desire to contaminate fresh foods in the United States, especially with highly pathogenic bacteria cultured in large batches that, for example, could be put in syringes that could then be used to spray the potentially deadly pathogens on fresh food like produce and vegetables.
The officials said intelligence indicated AQ has considered deploying cadres of Americans who’d been recruited and converted into jihadists who could get jobs in fresh food production, distribution and transportation. Through their access to large bulk packaging, distribution and transportation inside the nation’s massive food processing system, they might be able to contaminate large amounts of fresh food shipments.
Former Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell said “one of our greatest concerns continues to be that a terrorist group or some other dangerous group might acquire and employ biological agents … to create casualties greater than September 11.”
In his 2004 resignation speech, former HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson declared: “I, for the life of me, cannot understand why the terrorists have not … attacked our food supply because it is so easy to do.”
Homeland Security Today earlier reported (see The WMD Connection in January 2010) that counterterrorism authorities have long been concerned that AQ is much more likely to attempt to carry out a mass casualty attack using biological agents rather than lethal chemicals or radiological or nuclear weapons.
Pathogenic bacteria are bacteria that cause bacterial infection like tuberculosis, which is caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium Tuberculosis, which kills roughly two million people a year.
Other pathogenic bacteria include those that cause foodborne illnesses like Salmonella. Pathogenic bacteria also are responsible for tetanus, typhoid fever, diphtheria, syphilis and leprosy.
But are Mass Casualties
But not all of these pathogenic bacteria could successfully be used to contaminate food and produce mass illnesses, authorities pointed out. But some could, and that’s what worries homeland security officials.
Some of these officials said in the wake of the disclosure of the DHS alert that the tactic of contaminating food with biological agents is beyond the capabilities of Al Qaeda.
DHS spokesman Sean Smith said in a prepared statement that “we get reports about the different kinds of attacks terrorists would like to carry out that frequently are beyond their assessed capability," noting, however, that Al Qaeda “has publicly stated its intention to try to carry out unconventional attacks for well over a decade.”
In his March 3, 2009 S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies paper, Food Terrorism: How Real? A Historical Survey Since 1950, Gregory Dalziel stated that “there is very little clear evidence of actual intent from terrorist groups to attack the food supply chain in order to produce mass casualties, whether with CBRN materials or otherwise.”
Earlier, the Congressional Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism’s final report, World at Risk, concluded that “because of the difficulty of weaponizing and disseminating significant quantities of a biological agent in aerosol form, government officials and private sector experts believe that no terrorist group currently has an operational capability to carry out a mass casualty [biological] attack.”
“But they could develop that capability quickly,” the report added, noting that “in 2006 congressional testimony, Charles Allen, Under Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis at the Department of Homeland Security, noted that the threat of bioterrorism could increase rapidly if a terrorist group were able to recruit technical experts who had experience in a national biological warfare program, with knowledge comparable to that of the perpetrator of the 2001 anthrax letter attacks. In other words, given the high level of know-how needed to use disease as a weapon to cause mass casualties, the United States should be less concerned that terrorists will become biologists and far more concerned that biologists will become terrorists.”
Continuing, the panel’s report stated that “the last point bears repeating. We accept the validity of intelligence estimates about the current rudimentary nature of terrorist capabilities in the area of biological weapons but caution that the terrorists are trying to upgrade their capabilities and could do so by recruiting skilled scientists. In this respect the biological threat is greater than the nuclear; the acquisition of deadly pathogens, and their weaponization and dissemination in aerosol form, would entail fewer technical hurdles than the theft or production of weapons-grade uranium or plutonium and its assembly into an improvised nuclear device.”
But, the Commission ultimately concluded, “the difficulty of quantifying the bioterrorism threat to the United States does not make that threat any less real or compelling. It involves both motivation and capability, and the first ingredient is clearly present. Al Qaeda had an active biological weapons program in the past, and it is unlikely that the group has lost interest in employing infectious disease as a weapon. That roughly a half-dozen countries are suspected to possess or to be seeking biological weapons also provides ample grounds for concern.”
Some WMD counterterrorism authorities and other officials disagreed, saying post-9/11 intelligence has continued to indicate that Al Qaeda remains interested in carrying out biological attacks. The concerns have been serious enough that beginning in May 2005, the Heart of America Joint Terrorism Task Force (HOA-JTTF), in conjunction with the Kansas City Division of the FBI and the greater Kansas City metro area police, convened the International Symposium on Agroterrorism to bring together experts and officials from around the world to discuss this threat.
There have been three symposiums since then that have been attended by thousands of authorities and government officials from dozens of countries to brainstorm how to protect and monitor the global food supply from terrorism. The 4th symposium will again be held in Kansas City next April 26-28.
“It would be foolish to think that Al Qaeda doesn’t have the resources and skill sets to develop pathogenic bacteria” that it could use to contaminate food stuffs, an official told HSToday.us.
“What they lack,” said another official, “are the jihadists in the right positions necessary to carry out a large-scale attack” that would result in mass casualties. “That’s their [AQ] problem.”
All of the officials though stressed that Al Qaeda today “is thinking out of the box – things that a lot of people probably would consider to be science fiction,” as one said.
Continuing, the official emphasized that Al Qaeda “represents a determined Islamist jihad-inspired religious mindset that’s thinking in terms of fighting infidels – us – using wide-ranging asymmetrical attack methodologies. Before 9/11, how many would have believed that terrorists could – or would - fly planes into the World Trade Center buildings … or the Pentagon … or that someone could send anthrax spores through the mail … or that some terrorist would be such a true believer that he’d stuff a bomb up his ass or in his underwear?”
The official stressed that “these are religious inspired terrorists who believe that killing themselves to kill infidels will send them to be with Allah; they really believe that jihad is the one sure fire way to get to heaven. We’re facing a motivated enemy that is thinking so far out of the box that’s sometimes even I find what they’re thinking about doing is ridiculous. But it isn’t! And that’s the reality!”
The HHS-FDA study stated that “the threat to the US food supply is more than theoretical,” explaining that “when US troops entered the caves and safe houses of members of the Al Qaeda terrorist network in Afghanistan in the months following the September 11th attacks, they found hundreds of pages of US agricultural documents that had been translated into Arabic.”
“A significant part of the group's training manual is reportedly devoted to agricultural terrorism - specifically, the destruction of crops, livestock and food processing operations,” the study noted. Moreover, recent threats of food sabotage from known terrorist groups have been reported. Specifically, the Central Intelligence Agency stated in January 2003 that it was investigating whether one of Al Qaeda's leading experts on chemical and biological warfare was involved in a plot to poison food intended for British troops. The investigation stemmed from the discovery of ricin in a London apartment linked to suspected militants, one of whom worked for a catering company. The suspects were believed to have been in contact with people who worked on at least one British military base.”
Then, “in early September 2003,” the HHS-FDA report pointed out, the Federal Bureau of Investigation issued a bulletin warning that terrorists might use two naturally occurring toxins, nicotine and solanine, to poison US food or water supplies. The FBI noted that terrorist manuals and documents recovered in Afghanistan refer to the use of these substances as poisons.
Citing the supermarket employee that deliberately contaminated ground beef with an insecticide containing nicotine, FBI officials advised: "Such lone offenders, whether Al Qaeda [sic] sympathizers or domestic criminals, are a concern to FBI because they are so difficult to detect."
And “the US is not alone in its concern about a food terrorist event. The WHO Secretariat noted [in 2002] that several countries have reported heightened states of alert for a biological or chemical attack on air, water, or food,” the study said, stressing that “the events of September 11, 2001, and evidence from Al Qaeda validate concerns about threat of terrorism against the United States.”
The Economic Threat
Retired Air Force Col. Randall Larsen, who served as executive director of the Congressional Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, told HSToday.us that while the nation’s food supply system is certainly vulnerable to a terrorist attack “at many points … I’m not convinced that an attack on the food supply could ever reach the level of being a mass destruction attack.”
The first witnesses to testify before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (known as the 9/11 Commission), Larsen continued: “Yeah, you could do that, but you could easier also probably kill just as many with a bomb at the food court of a shopping mall.”
Director of The Institute for Homeland Security and the National Security Advisor to the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Larsen said “I believe there’s a small likelihood of a mass destruction” attack on the food supply.
Larsen explained that while there are indeed “choke points” for the production of specific food products that potentially could be targeted, he said the food production and processing industry is very cognizant of internal security because of the potential threats they face every day from disgruntled and sloppy employees and “mother nature.”
An attack or attacks could cause “mass disruption” and pockets of illnesses, Larsen said, but the larger impact would be economic, noting that “one in seven people work in the food industry in production, processing and retail sales.”
Larsen pointed out that a sophisticated attack on our meat supply using Hoof and Mouth disease “would require the destruction of 50 million cloven-hoofed animals to get the disease under control and to control the economic impact.”
“I worry more about the economic impact than I do a mass casualty impact,” Larsen said.
Indeed. The HHS-FDA report stated that the “deliberate or accidental contamination of food [could] have enormous economic implications in the US, where one out of every eight Americans is estimated to work in an occupation directly linked to food production.”
The study said “food terrorists may have economic disruption as their primary motive.”
“At least three types of economic effects may be generated by an act of food terrorism,” the study concluded. These could be from “direct economic losses attributable to the costs of responding to the act; indirect multiplier effects from compensation paid to affected producers and the losses suffered by affiliated industries, such as suppliers, transporters, distributors and restaurant chains; and international costs in the form of trade embargoes imposed by trading partners.”
“Though the costs associated with the food sabotage … are unavailable,” the study said, “reports from unintentional contamination incidents demonstrate the tremendous costs of responding to such events. In 1998, a company in the US recalled nearly 16,000 metric tons of frankfurters and luncheon meats potentially contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes, at a total cost of $50 million to $70 million. The company reported spending more than $100 million in the following two years to improve food safety and convince consumers that its products were safe.”
“Indirect costs,” HHS and FDA concluded, “can be staggering as well. The US Department of Agriculture estimates that foodborne illnesses linked to five pathogens costs the economy $6.9 billion annually,” noting that “the outbreak from Salmonella-contaminated ice cream was estimated to have cost the US economy about $18.1 million in medical care and time lost from work.”
“Agriculture and the general food industry remain absolutely critical to the social, economic and, arguably, political stability of the US, indirectly constituting roughly two percent of the country’s overall domestic gross domestic product (GDP),” stated RAND Corp. policy analyst Peter Chalk during a Senate Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, Restructuring and the District of Columbia, in October 2001.
Reiterating that “one in eight people work in some component of agriculture – more if food production is included,” this makes “the industry one of the US’ largest employers. Cattle and dairy farmers alone earn between $50 and $54 billion a year through meat and milk sales, while roughly $50 billion is raised every year through agricultural exports. The share of produce sold overseas is more than double that of other US industries, which gives agriculture major importance in terms of the American balance of trade.”
Chalk told the subcommittee that “these figures represent only a fraction of the total value of agriculture to the country, as they do not take into account allied services and industries such as suppliers, transporters, distributors and restaurant chains.” He noted that “the downstream effect of any deliberate act of sabotage/destruction to this highly valuable industry would be enormous; creating a tidal wave effect that would be felt by all these sectors, impacting, ultimately, on the ordinary citizen him/herself.”
“Unfortunately,” Chalk warned lawmakers, “the agricultural and food industries remain highly vulnerable to deliberate (and accidental) disruption.”
But, Chalk said although “over the [previous] decade many states, particularly in North America and Western Europe, have made substantial investments in improving their ability to detect, prevent and respond to terrorist threats and incidents [that] has fed into an increasingly well-protected public infrastructure throughout much of the developed world where, at a minimum, effectively developed vulnerability-threat analyses have been used to maximize both anti-terrorist contingencies and consequence management modalities … Agriculture [nevertheless] is one area that has received very little attention in this regard.”
“In terms of accurate threat assessments, response structures and preparedness initiatives,” Chalk said, “the sector continues to exist as a glaring exception to the wide-ranging emphasis that has been given to critical infrastructure protection in this country.”
And still does, authorities told HSToday.us.
The Ability to Monitor
The recent alarm over terrorist “chatter” about possible bioterror attacks on the nation’s food supply comes at a time when there are growing worries about the ability of the country’s medical community to be able to monitor and quickly detect a foodborne bio-attack.
CDC has stated that “disease reporting is likely incomplete, and completeness might vary depending on the disease and reporting state. The degree of completeness of data reporting might be influenced by the diagnostic facilities available; control measures in effect; public awareness of a specific disease; and the resources, and priorities of state and local officials responsible for disease control and public health surveillance. Finally, factors such as changes in methods for public health surveillance, introduction of new diagnostic tests, or discovery of new disease entities can cause changes in disease reporting that are independent of the true incidence of disease.”
More recently, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported HHS has failed to “develop and deliver to congressional committees a strategic plan that demonstrated the steps to be taken toward the establishment and evaluation of an electronic public health situational awareness network, as required by” the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act (PAHPA) of 2006.”
The Act “mandated actions” by the HHS secretary “for efficient sharing of real-time information to help prevent potentially devastating consequences that could result from public health emergencies.”
PAHPA directed use of information technology to collect and share real-time information electronically among public health entities to aid in creating the situational awareness needed to enable early detection of and effective response to emerging events.
But “while multiple offices within HHS have developed related strategies that could contribute to a comprehensive strategic plan for an electronic public health information network to enhance situational awareness, these strategies were not developed for this purpose,” GAO reported. “Instead, the offices developed the strategies to address their specific goals, objectives, and priorities and to meet requirements of executive and statutory authorities that mandated the development of strategies for nationwide health information exchange, coordinated biosurveillance, and health security.”
Continuing, GAO stated that “HHS has not defined a comprehensive strategic plan that identifies goals, objectives, activities, and priorities and that integrates related strategies to achieve the unified electronic nationwide situational awareness capability required by PAHPA. The department has developed and implemented information technology systems intended to enable electronic information sharing to support early detection of and response to public health emergencies; however, these systems were not developed as part of a comprehensive, coordinated strategic plan as required by PAHPA. Instead, they were developed to support ongoing public health activities over the past decade, such as disease and syndromic surveillance.”
Consequently, GAO concluded, “without the guidance and direction that would be provided by an overall strategic plan that defines requirements for establishing and evaluating the capabilities of existing and planned information systems, HHS cannot be assured that its resources are being effectively used to develop and implement systems that are able to collect, analyze, and share the information needed to fulfill requirements for an electronic nationwide public health situational awareness capability.”
One senior state public preparedness official told HSToday.us that “I scanned the GAO report and discussed it with my in-house colleagues. The premise [of the PAHPA-mandated plan] makes good sense, but from an operational standpoint I see very little in the way of effective, manageable, timely, intelligently linked, workable communication protocols. I would guess it comes under the heading of ‘devoutly to be wished.’”
Continuing, the official said “I believe that the sheer weight and complexity of our multilevel local state and federal bureaucracies dooms such a program. What we have done [in my state] is to identify a small network of individuals who are linked to other small networks who in turn are linked to others, etc, and share local and regional data as it affects our jurisdictions. We have done this because our view of the Feds is colored by their lamentable foot dragging when it comes to immediate and intelligent response to rapidly changing events.”
The Washington, DC-based Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) stated in its recently released eighth annual Ready or Not? Protecting the Public from Diseases, Disasters, and Bioterrorism report that seven states cannot currently share data electronically with health care providers and that ten states do not have an electronic syndromic surveillance system that can report and exchange information to rapidly detect disease outbreaks.
The report also looked at findings from a recently released report from CDC based on activities in 2007-08 that focus on emergency operations and food outbreak identification. Among the findings: 21 states were not able to rapidly identify disease-causing E. coli O157:H7 and submit the lab results in 90 percent of cases within four days.
According to the report, while states have made progress, there are still major ongoing gaps in preparedness, including biosurveillance and maintaining an adequate and expertly trained workforce.
TFAH concluded that “the United States lacks an integrated, national approach to biosurveillance, and there are major variations in how quickly states collect and report data which hamper bioterrorism and disease outbreak response capabilities.”
Fears were further stoked in December when North Texas Rep. Dr. Michael Burgess (the top Republican on the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations and a member of the Committee on Health Care, Energy and Environment and chairman of Congressional Health Care Caucus) expressed consternation over the failure of CDC and DHS to prevent three people known to have an infectious disease from boarding flights this year.
According to Burgess, who spoke to HSToday.us, three out of nine people with an infectious disease who were supposed to be on the “Do Not Board” list were able to get on their flights – one in January and the other two in March.
DHS and CDC established the "Do Not Board" list in June 2007 after an Atlanta man known by CDC to have a drug-resistant strain of tuberculosis managed to fly in and out of the United States despite reportedly having been told by federal authorities not to fly and to get medical attention.
According to CDC, 32 people currently are on the "Do Not Board" list because they have tuberculosis. Several have hard to treat drug-resistant strains.
Burgess said he’s asked DHS and CDC why the three people were allowed to fly when they were supposed to have been on the “Do Not Board” list.
“This issue is clearly a problem that only affects a small number of people [those who are infected], but which has the potential to affect many people if they’re allowed fly,” Burgess said.
“I want to know why they aren’t able to administer this” list, Burgess said, adding, “there appear to be weak spots in the system.”
In one case, TSA said the airline didn’t know that a passenger’s name had been put on the “Do Not Board” list because at the time the airline was only required to check the list every 24 hours. The person’s name was put on the list at 9:38 PM, and the passenger checked in at 11:53 AM the following day. The other two infected persons on the “Do Not Board” list weren’t caught for other reasons TSA would not explain.
As of last month, TSA became the authority responsible for cross-checking passengers on all flights against the variety of watch lists that the airlines previously were responsible for checking. The TSA program is called Secure Flight, and is supposed to fix the problem some airlines had in updating and checking the lists.
Burgess, however, said he has asked DHS to prove to him that the new system will work as intended. But he also still wants to know why three persons with a highly infectious disease were able to board passenger planes given that the technology was in place to ensure that the airlines knew that these individuals were not to be allowed to board.
“That’s what you would think,” Burgess said. “We have this enormous apparatus in place, so this shouldn’t have been very hard to do.”
Some authorities also wonder whether terrorists known to have an infectious disease who are covertly being monitored by the Intelligence Community will be put on the “Do Not Board” list. Not all suspected and known terrorists are put on the “No Fly” list because intelligence authorities want to be able to track their comings and goings.
National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) Director Michael Leiter, a veteran intelligence practitioner, disclosed during the public portion of a January 20, 2010 Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hearing that some terrorists on terrorist watch lists are sometimes secretly allowed into the country for clandestine counterterrorism intelligence collection purposes.
Leiter told the Committee “that when people come to the country and they are on the watch list, it is because we have generally made the choice that we want them here in the country for some reason or another.”
Leiter didn’t go into further detail during the public portion of the hearing, but veteran counterterrorists explained in interviews with HSToday.us at the time that there are individuals in terrorism databases and suspected and known terrorists who’ve necessarily been left off the “No Fly” list and allowed into the country so that counterterrorism agents can gather vital intelligence on them, their movements, activities and associations.
Public health authorities expressed their concern that this could be “a loophole” that could allow a terrorist or terrorists “deliberately infected” with a highly contagious pathogen to enter the country. HSToday.us reported in 2005 that intelligence indicated Al Qaeda had discussed infecting “bio-martyrs” with pandemic influenza (Homeland Security Today, 2010).Title: U.S. Not Ready For Bioterrorism
Date: December 30, 2010
Source: Homeland Security News Wire
Abstract: New report finds that if a major disease incident or bioterrorism attack were to occur today, the United States would not be ready for it; significant local, state, and federal budget cuts have had a negative impact on public health departments' ability to maintain staff capabilities, and their ability to respond to crises
If a major disease incident or bioterrorism attack were to occur today, the United States would not be ready for it. This is according to a new report supported by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Cattlenetwork quotes the report to say that “there’s an emergency for emergency health preparedness in the United States.” It calls attention to significant local, state, and federal budget cuts and the impact they have had on public health departments’ ability to maintain staff capabilities, and their ability to respond to crises.
Key findings include:
2. Thirty-three states and D.C. cut funding for public health from Fiscal Year 2008-9 to FY 2009-10.
3. Seven states can not currently share data electronically with health care providers.
4. Ten states do not have an electronic syndromic surveillance system that can report and exchange information.
5. Six states reported that pre-identified staff were not able to acknowledge notification of emergency exercises or incidents within the target time of sixty minutes at least twice during 2007-8.
6. Six states did not activate their emergency operations center a minimum of two times in 2007-8.
7. Two states did not develop at least two After-Action Report/Improvement Plans (AAR/IPs) after exercises or real incidents in 2007-2008 (Homeland Security News Wire, 2010).