War games suggest the day ‘beyond description’ could be worse
As devastating as Tuesday’s terrorist attacks were, national security and public health experts know this much:
Something even worse could happen. There are weapons that are invisible and next-to-impossible to trace.
A whiff of nerve gas. A droplet of anthrax. A particle of smallpox.
Infectious or toxic weapons in skilled hands could cause considerably more casualties among ordinary Americans than the estimated 5,000 dead and missing at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The use of biological or chemical weapons – described by some as the poor man’s atomic bomb – is a sensitive topic, especially now.
Experts caution that a bioterrorism attack here is not inevitable. Their opinions are the products of war games rather than an immediate and real threat.
And there are those who say that few terrorists could pull this off, that this would be a much more complicated and difficult feat than it may seem.
But the science exists to launch such an attack and, obviously, so does the hatred. President Clinton said as much as early as 1999 when he said a biological or chemical attack on the United States is ”highly likely.”
Seattle thought so, too. Before the World Trade Organization meeting there, hospitals stockpiled antidotes, just in case.
A commander of Afghanistan’s Taliban told The Associated Press last year that Osama bin Laden – described by administration officials as the prime suspect in Tuesday’s attacks – was training his fighters in the use of chemical weapons. The New York Times reported Sunday that satellite photos show dead animals at a terrorist training camp in eastern Afghanistan operated by bin Laden.
Chemical weapons might have an extraordinary effect, wiping out masses of people, all at once. But the deadly effects likely would not spread beyond the people who came in direct contact with the nerve gas or other poisonous agent.
In contrast, the scope of an attack using certain biological weapons in an airport or a domed stadium would not be apparent for days or weeks until victims showed symptoms of a mysterious illness.
By then, they could have infected many others around the world. Waves of patients might overwhelm hospitals.
The public, panicked, might turn on their neighbors unless adequate medicines and vaccines were available.
Which, the experts warn, they are not.
”The biological threat is one we are not adequately prepared for,” said Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a Washington think tank. Hamburg was New York City health commissioner during the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
”This is a critical moment to assess where we are vulnerable,” she said. ”The biological threat has to be very, very high on the priority list.”
Others share Hamburg’s concern.
”I’m very, very alarmed,” said Donald A. Henderson, a biodefense expert at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and adviser to former President Bush.
Skeptics said Tuesday’s events, while horrific, don’t mean that a bioattack is on the horizon. Most terrorists, they said, don’t have the expertise.
”We need to be realistic in our threat assessments,” said Jonathan B. Tucker, a nonproliferation expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Washington. ”A worst-case scenario is unlikely.”
Fighting with disease was prohibited by a 1972 treaty signed by 143 nations, but biological weapons have, on occasion, been used in the past. In the Middle Ages, sieges were broken by catapulting corpses over castle walls to spread poxes and plagues. In the western United States, American Indians were given the blankets of smallpox victims.
In the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein fired chemical weapons. He held biological weapons and, according to the CIA, is pursuing them again.
The United States and the former Soviet Union built vast germ warfare stockpiles. In July, the Bush administration pulled out of negotiations to further enforce the biological weapons ban.
Subsequent reports suggest both nations still investigate new bioweapons, including an enhanced form of anthrax, to understand how they might work. Experts speculate that hardships might prompt some Russian scientists to sell their know-how on the black market. In addition to Iraq, Iran and Libya have reportedly pursued germ warfare.
In Japan, a cult killed a dozen commuters on a Tokyo subway with nerve gas in 1995 after failing to spread biological agents with a sprayer truck.
With today’s microcomponents, some believe a modified fire extinguisher or climate control system loaded with bioagents could do the job.
In the past 18 months, such simple scenarios have been featured in simulations with names like ”Dark Winter,” ”Operation Top-Off” and ”RED Ex.” The exercises, hosted by think tanks, involved many high-level officials and analysts.
(Ironically, New York City was planning a mass vaccination drill on Sept. 12. The World Trade Center attack pre-empted it.)
Former Sen. Sam Nunn recently portrayed the president in the ”Dark Winter” simulation of a smallpox attack. On Sept. 5, Nunn summarized it for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:
The 3,000 ”cases” in Oklahoma from the initial ”attack” mushroomed into hundreds of thousands of victims nationwide within 12 days, along with riots and a trade collapse.
”It’s a lucky thing this was just a test,” Nunn said. ”But our lack of preparation is a real emergency.”
Authorities identify six microbes that could be turned into fearsome weapons:
Smallpox tops the chilling list. Tens of millions of infectious virus particles can fit into an aerosol can.
A close second is anthrax, a spore-forming bacterium often carried by livestock that is especially virulent if inhaled.
Also worrisome are bubonic plague, ebola, botulism and tularemia.
They can be unstable and difficult to ”weaponize,” although the biotech revolution in medicine may change that.
”Genetic modification of organisms can make them resistant to antibiotics and more difficult to detect,” said Dr. Eric Noji of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. ”Of all the great things to come from the sequencing of the human genome, the downside is its potential for evil use.”
Tucker and other security experts aren’t convinced.
Seed cultures of infectious agents are uncommon and hard to grow, they said. Smallpox was eradicated in 1979; only samples remain under top security here and in Russia. And, they are hard to disperse reliably.
As a wet slurry, biomaterials tend to clump and clog sprayers.
As a dry powder, the process is even more difficult and dangerous, they said.
Still, authorities recommend some steps.
First, money. Hamburg suggests using some of Congress’ $40 billion war chest toward addressing bioterror.
And medicine. Nunn says there are only 12 million doses of smallpox vaccines in the nation now. CDC has contracted for 40 million more – still only enough for one in seven Americans, and they won’t be ready for several years.
Illness reports could be better shared to detect infection clusters.
But most doctors haven’t seen a real epidemic, or treated the illnesses on the bioterror list.
In a Minnesota test, former state epidemiologist Michael Osterholm reported an emergency specialist failed to diagnose anthrax. Radiologists missed it on lung X-rays.
In a matter of days, Osterholm warned, it would be ”the closest thing to a living hell we’ve probably ever known.”
The first symptoms? Like the flu.
In that test, the world we know didn’t end with a bang, but a sniffle.
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