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Experts Warn of Threat of Bioterrorism - 2001-09-24

While the United States remains focused on hunting down those responsible for the September 11 terrorist attacks, many experts say the nation is neglecting another threat that could be far more deadly and easy to carry out - the danger posed by a terrorist armed with a biological weapon.

The death toll from the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington is now estimated at over 6,800. But if the terrorists who targeted the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had been armed with just a small amount of deadly agents like anthrax or smallpox - even just a spoonful - the death toll could have been hundreds of times greater.

Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota's research center for Infectious Diseases, wrote a book last year warning about what he calls the coming bioterrorist catastrophe. "We know a number of rogue nations have been working extensively with biological weapons," he said.

And deadly substances like nerve gas, anthrax spores and other agents capable of triggering epidemics may already be in the hands of countries accused of supporting of terrorism.

"One of the future attacks on the United States will be with a biological weapon," said Mr. Osterholm. "As we bring greater security to airports, airplanes, whatever, they [terrorists] are going to find other ways to do it because the basic motivation to do it is still there."

Both the World Health Organization as well as the U.S. government say there are not enough vaccines now stockpiled to treat the number of people who could become infected if a biological agent was released.

Michael Osterholm and others warn the nation's already stretched public health system would be overwhelmed. "We must be prepared to deal with the eventuality of a catastrophic bioterrorism event potentially involving hundreds of thousands of lives," he said.

U.S. officials are so concerned about this that they recently staged an exercise at a military base near Washington to determine how well rescue workers, the nation's health care system and law enforcement could respond.

The findings were not encouraging. Former Senator Sam Nunn took part in the mock biological weapons attack and told Congress the nation would be plunged into panic. The government would be forced to take drastic action to keep disease from spreading once vaccine supplies ran out.

"We quickly faced the only other alternative, forced isolation, with large numbers of exposed citizens whose locations and identities remained guesswork," he said. "We were down to the really tough questions: Do we force whole communities and cities to stay in their homes? How? With force? How much force? Deadly force?"

No one from the Bush administration would respond to repeated requests for interviews on the subject.

The White House is asking Congress for $350 million, an 18 percent increase, to prepare for a kind of attack never seen in this country, but one which experts warn would be much easier to carry out than the well planned and coordinated terrorists attacks in New York and Washington on September 11.