U.S. Is Vulnerable to Bioterrorism, Specialist Says

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Byline: Joyce Howard Price

The release of smallpox or anthrax in a terrorist attack against the United States is "entirely possible," and the smallpox vaccinations millions of Americans received as children would offer no protection, a bioterrorism specialist said yesterday.

"If this did happen, it could be really very serious, indeed. And I think, at this time, we have no choice but to be prepared to respond quickly, should such a release occur," said Dr. Donald A. Henderson, professor of epidemiology and director of Civilian Biodefense Studies at the John Hopkins School of Public Health.

Dr. Henderson made his comments yesterday on a CNN special, "Target: Terrorism," a day after a 63-year-old Florida man died of an extremely rare form of inhaled anthrax. He said it is a "fair judgment" this was a single case unrelated to terrorism.

"We do have occasional cases of anthrax in this country that occur usually as a result of contact with animals," he said.

Smallpox is caused by a virus and anthrax by a bacterium. Both micro-organisms could be converted into weapons of mass destruction by terrorists.

Florida health officials said no other anthrax cases have been reported in the area. What's more, they said, the victim's anthrax responded to penicillin, suggesting he acquired his disease naturally. They said anthrax developed as a biological weapon could be resistant to the antibiotic.

Anthrax, unlike smallpox, cannot be passed from one person to another.

Bioterrorism specialists agree that the highly contagious smallpox virus - which kills up to a third of those it infects - is the most dangerous bioterrorism agent known to man.

"I wish I could tell you that we would be confident that we would not have a smallpox outbreak. But the fact is, we cannot provide that assurance at all," Dr. Henderson said.

He said the former Soviet Union "actually developed smallpox as a weapon . . . from 1980 onwards. They had manufacturing facilities that could produce as much as 80 [tons] to 100 tons of smallpox in a single year. …