Intercepting Bioterrorism

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), July 12, 2004 | Go to article overview
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Intercepting Bioterrorism


America is at a very dangerous crossroads. Not only al Qaeda but also terrorist groups such as Jemaah Islamiah are working on acquiring or developing new terrorism capabilities, including bioweapons. Will we be prepared?

Evidence in an Egyptian terrorism trial two years ago indicated Osama bin Laden may already have access to dangerous biological agents. Meanwhile, the risk of proliferation to terrorists continues growing, with at least eight nations running bioweapons programs, including genetic engineering of pathogens and developmental programs for new production and delivery methods.

Winning the war on terrorism will require our nation not only to defeat attacks with explosives and military-style weapons, but also to be prepared to overcome potential assaults with weaponized anthrax, ricin, smallpox, plague, tularemia, botulism toxin and viral hemorrhagic fevers (such as the Ebola virus).

Just how vulnerable are we to such attacks today? The United States now can fully meet only a handful of the 57 "top echelon" bioterror threats. That's not an acceptable level of preparedness for the greatest power on Earth. We can launch a Tomahawk cruise missile and thread it down the smokestack of a munitions factory from 1,000 miles away - once thought to be a million-to-one shot at best - yet we aren't prepared to deal with the frightening prospect of an anthrax or sarin gas attack against our civilian population.

It's vital that we put our best minds to work round-the-clock on new ways to prepare for a biological or chemical attack here at home. But according to a study published in the May 2004 issue of the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, only six of 506 drugs currently in development are antibiotics - even though drug-resistant bacteria are a growing threat.

This is only because the proper incentives and funding aren't there, not because the scientific challenge is too great. Indeed, the germs that cause anthrax and plague are not nearly as difficult to analyze as a virus such as HIV. Vaccines and treatments for biological weapons such as these can be developed.

Certainly, America has made some progress in preparing for possible germ warfare on our own soil, but we're not ready to combat a major bioterror assault at this time and our enemies know it. Worse, they're looking for ways to exploit our weaknesses.

We are now on the threshold of changing that. Project Bioshield, expected to receive final legislative approval tomorrow and then be sent to the president for his signature, will shortly unleash the greatest force in world history: American ingenuity.

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