Global Security Newswire
Daily News on Nuclear, Biological & Chemical Weapons, Terrorism and Related Issues
Anthrax Attack Threat Persists, DHS Says
The U.S. government must remain poised to deal with another attack involving anthrax, a senior Homeland Security Department official warned last week (see GSN, May 9).
"The threat of an attack using a biological agent is real and requires that we remain vigilant. A wide-area attack using aerosolized Bacillus anthracis, the bacteria that causes anthrax, is one of the most serious mass casualty biological threats facing the U.S.," DHS chief medical officer Alexander Garza said during a May 12 hearing of the House Homeland Security emergency preparedness subcommittee.
Five people died and more were made sick by the 2001 anthrax mailings. The FBI years later identified Army scientist Bruce Ivins as the perpetrator, but the microbiologist committed suicide before charges were filed (see GSN, April 21).
"An anthrax attack could potentially encompass hundreds of square miles, expose hundreds of thousands of people, and cause illness, death, fear, societal disruption and economic damage," Garza said. "If untreated, the disease is nearly 100 percent fatal, which means that those exposed must receive life-saving [medical countermeasures] as soon as possible."
The key capacities to dealing with such a threat are the ability to quickly identify the release of a biological agent and then to deliver medical countermeasures to all potential victims before they display "clinical symptoms," Garza said.
Homeland Security's Health Affairs Office manages the Biowatch program, which has deployed sensors in major cities around the nation to detect airborne biological agents (see GSN, Nov. 19, 2010). It is pursuing development of more sophisticated technology that would enable confirmation of a bioagent release in four to six hours, Garza told the panel.
"This 'detect to treat' approach provides the public health community with an opportunity to respond to a release of a biological agent as quickly as possible in order to mitigate the potentially catastrophic impact on the population," he said. "Early detection allows communities to provide medical countermeasures to affected persons in a timely manner in order to save more lives."
The Health Affairs Office is also involved in various additional "federal interagency efforts to strengthen the nation’s ability to prepare for, respond to, and recover from natural disasters and terrorist attacks," Garza said. These included preparing a system under which the U.S. Postal Service would distribute medical countermeasures in the event of a major biological incident (House Homeland Security Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications Subcommittee release, May 12).
Observers in recent years have expressed continuing concerns about U.S. capabilities to deal with a biological or other WMD incident.
In January 2010, the congressionally chartered Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism gave the federal government a failing grade on bioterrorism readiness (see GSN, Jan. 26, 2010).
Recent sessions of the House subcommittee addressed a number of concerns related to biodefense, BioPrepWatch.com reported. Issues included treating children exposed to a bioterror agent, the need to better educate doctors on symptoms of exposure to such a disease threat, and necessary improvemens to remediation capabilities following an incident (Jeffrey Bigongiari, BioPrepWatch.com, May 17).