Threat Of Bioterrorism A Frustrating And Persistent Security Risk
The bioterror threat of anthrax is one considered cheap to do, easy to pull off and tough to respond to, making it one of the top concerns of security officials across the country, and one of their greatest frustrations.
New York City is at the forefront of fighting this threat, with one of the most advanced detection and response systems in the country. But the problem “is not fixed in New York or anywhere else,” says Richard Falkenrath, the city’s counterterror chief and a former senior White House security aide.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the federal government has spent nearly $50 billion on programs to fight bioterrorism since 2001. Still, experience in New York City and elsewhere underscores the enduring difficulty of contending with this type of terror attack. Experts in the field say that the nation’s ability to detect biological weapons is still inadequate in most locales, as is its ability to distribute drugs to the population once the lethal agent is identified. Hospitals warn that the volume of casualties from an effective attack could simply overwhelm facilities.
“We’ve made very little progress in [any] of those very big areas,” says Dr. Tara O’Toole, director of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is constructing a center that will merge biothreat information from federal agencies and eventually connect it with localities. The department has also been building its BioWatch system, which deploys equipment to sniff out key deadly pathogens from the air.
William O. Jenkins Jr. of the Government Accountability office said in congressional testimony that it isn’t clear that the new center will be able to perform as expected when it is launched next month. He also found that the BioWatch system requires up to 34 hours to detect and confirm a pathogen. While the department is trying to develop an interim solution to expedite detection, a faster system isn’t scheduled for completion until 2010, he says.
Bioterror experts warn that an attack is only going to become easier to launch as the same work that has spawned countless new biotech medical treatments continues to advance. “Unfortunately, there’s going to be a dark side,” Randall Larsen, director of the Virginia-based Institute for Homeland Security, told the Wall Street Journal. The biotech revolution, he says, is making it “easier for nonstate actors to develop sophisticated bioweapons.”