BIOLOGICAL WARFARE : Are We Ready?

By Davidson, Margaret | Commonweal, October 12, 2001 | Go to article overview

BIOLOGICAL WARFARE : Are We Ready?


Davidson, Margaret, Commonweal


In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, a shaken nation struggles to get back on its feet, but with the grim realization that its enemy ignores the recognized rules for waging war. Fear increasingly focuses on the possibility that such an enemy might one day turn to biological weapons. On September 24, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a warning that modern technology has made it possible for terrorists to kill millions of people with biological or chemical weapons. Even though the threat is small, WHO said, the potential effects are devastating. Recent news reports that the terrorists who attacked New York and Washington had made inquiries about crop-dusting planes underline the danger.

It is a threat that the United States has been slow to engage, perhaps because the use of such weapons has been too terrifying to contemplate. In the last year, various levels of government have staged mock crises and devoted considerable time and money to preparing emergency personnel for such attacks. Still, our leaders have failed adequately to provide the medical vaccines and treatments needed to protect both civilians and the military against potential deadly bacteria, viruses, and toxins. Sent forth to ferret out the shadowy terrorists, U.S. troops would go woefully unprotected against biological weapons.

The threat is not new. A decade ago, personnel deployed to the Persian Gulf faced potential stockpiles of Saddam Hussein's biological weapons but were largely unshielded against them. (Iraq later admitted to UNSCOM that it had produced 8,500 liters of concentrated anthrax bacillus and 19,400 liters of concentrated botulinum toxin, which could have afflicted thousands.) In August 1990, an intelligence warning went out: "Iraq, the first nation to use nerve agents on the battlefield, probably would not hesitate to use BW [biological warfare] agents in extreme situations." The same month, the decision was made to vaccinate our troops against anthrax and botulism. But the response was too little and too late.

The Department of Defense (DOD) arranged with a single lab, the Michigan Department of Public Health, to provide the needed vaccines. When it realized that a single producer could not meet such a demand, DOD scrambled to generate an adequate supply. Project Badger, a tri-service task force, was initiated to find additional suppliers, but it turned out that commercial manufacturers were not interested. Lacking enough anthrax vaccine to go around, the U.S. Central Command then allocated doses to those personnel thought to be at greatest risk of exposure. As a result, only about one hundred and fifty thousand out of nearly seven hundred thousand troops who headed to the Persian Gulf received one or more doses of the anthrax vaccine, and an estimated eight thousand received one shot of the botulism vaccine.

It is questionable how much protection even these shots provided. A large portion of the military personnel didn't get them until early 1991 when they were already in the Gulf, too late for the full recommended regimen. …

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