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In second month after attack, America faces new challenge from biological agents

Wednesday, October 17, 2001

Five weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, more than a thousand workers toil daily at Ground Zero in New York. Thousands of truckloads of debris have been removed, but still they've only scratched the surface.
Meanwhile in Afghanistan, the first front in the U.S. war against terrorism, bombs are being dropped for the 10th straight day, but they've only scratched the surface as well.
It is difficult to comprehend the enormity of the jobs ahead: cleaning up the site of the World Trade Center, recovering the remains of thousands of victims still missing, tracking down the men who planned and financed the attacks.
The new threat: Yet even before there is an end in sight for any of those tasks, a new threat and challenge has emerged: bioterrorism.
The anthrax incidents so far have resulted in only one death and a dozen or so confirmed exposures, but they have spawned thousands of hoaxes and false alarms.
The unanswered question is whether the anthrax exposures so far have been dry runs by terrorist groups with much bigger ideas or opportunistic attacks by small, possibly even domestic, cells. To a certain extent, it doesn't really matter, because regardless of the motivation, no one can afford to take the threat lightly.
And even though the toll has been relatively light in the number of victims, the effect on the nation has been huge and is still growing, especially with today's news that the strain of anthrax mailed to a U.S. Senate office was sophisticated and indicates that the mailer has access to a bioterrorism weapon.
Response: Federal, state and local police departments and hazardous materials response teams are being inundated with calls, most of them false alarms or hoaxes. Nevertheless, the extent to which police resources are being taxed is real. Since Oct. 1, FBI Director Robert Mueller says, "the FBI has received more than 2,300 incidents or suspected incidents involving anthrax or other dangerous agents."
Attorney General John Ashcroft says those who are involved in hoaxes are playing a dangerous and costly game -- both for society and for themselves. Conviction on charges tied to bioterrorism hoaxes could bring up to five years in prison, and violators could be fined twice the cost of investigating the threats and testing people for exposure.
Once that word gets out, the number of hoaxes should be drastically reduced. The authorities can then focus on the real threats.
Home and office: The primary responsibility for assessing he threat of bioterrorism falls to federal, state and local governments -- in that order of importance. But individual business and individual homes must take prudent precautions.
For now, those precautions consist primarily of using caution in handling the mail, especially envelopes that contain irregular shapes and certainly any that appear to be leaking powders or liquids. Just the fact that U.S. residents are being forced to alter such a routine part of their daily lives as opening the mail is a real and a psychological victory for the terrorists -- whoever they may be -- but it is not a crippling victory. Americans can and will respond.
The federal government must first assess the threat from various contaminants and then develop a strategy of prophylaxis or treatment. The threat today is anthrax, but tomorrow it could be smallpox, Ebola, the plague or any number of other diseases.
Health officials must track the number of hospital admissions, pharmaceutical sales and animal carcasses and be alert to irregularities that may indicate the presence of an unusual disease.
Already Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge says the government is boosting its reserves of anthrax antibiotics and smallpox vaccine. And the administration is said to be considering the inoculation of children against smallpox, a disease that was eliminated from the United States through public health efforts in the 20th century.
In the long run, research must be pursued on new ways of treating and preventing the wide range of biological agents that terrorists can use in their war against our civilization.
Political front: The government must also pursue political responses. The United States should reinvigorate its efforts to neutralize old Soviet stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons by offering to buy them and to destroy them.
The longer Russia keeps its stockpiles of Cold War weapons, the more difficult they become to store safely and the more likely becomes the possibility of some of the material falling into the hands of enemy agents. Destroying the stockpiles now would be mutually beneficial.
A clear warning should be sent to other nations that already have chemical or biological weapons or are working on developing stockpiles. Now that we have had a demonstration of how disruptive even a few incidents of bioterrorism can be, we have no choice in our response. Nations that use or allow to be used their biological or chemical weapons against the United States are committing an act of war, and we will respond appropriately.
All of this sounds very foreboding, and, of course, we dare not minimize the possible consequences of ignoring this new threat.
But the nation cannot allow itself to be paralyzed now or in the future by these or other, as yet unseen, attacks on America.
These early assaults are not only a test of our government's ability to respond to a threat, but a test of our national spirit and resolve.
Government must find the resources needed to combat this latest threat, but only we the people can provide the strength.