TCS Daily


Can’t Hardly Wait: Promising Bioterror Defenses Just Around the Corner

By Melana Zyla Vickers - October 19, 2001 12:00 AM

If there`s a political lesson to be drawn from the chilling bioterrorism that has struck the U.S. Capitol and other workplaces, it`s this: The international convention against biological weapons that 143 countries, including the United States, signed in 1972, offers signatories no protection at all.

But just because international law fell typically short, that doesn`t mean there aren`t effective means of protection against biological attacks. Several preventive technologies show promise — Americans just have to wait for them to be put in place.

If and when the U.S. is able to mount successful bio-defenses, they'll likely feature the following components:

  • Sensors: The Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency last year tested its first generation of miniature spectrometers that are able to identify all known biological warfare agents. Researchers are also working on "light detection and ranging" sensors that can detect chemical and biological warfare substances at a distance. Several companies already sell bioagent detection machinery to the military. More quirky detection methods could involve bees trained to detect the bioagents.


  • Barriers: U.S. military personnel have been receiving the anthrax vaccine for several years. The surgeon general early this year urged that vaccines be produced for civilians, if not given to them. The federal government has now moved to produce by 2004 some 40 million doses of a new smallpox vaccine. Other barriers to biological attack might include substances that go on the skin like sunscreen, or immuno-modulators, which boost the immune system's ability to defend against biological agents.


  • Germ-killers: Ultra-violet rays and irradiation are used already to kill biological agents once they're found. They could be used as a precautionary measure in future. For instance, U.S. mail could be irradiated when it passes through Post Office machinery.


  • To be sure, such defensive measures could have a big downside. For example, irradiating the mail would be expensive, not to mention harmful to garden seeds or other goods sent through the mail legitimately. Sensors could produce false alarms that would waste time and eventually lower the vigilance of inspectors using them. Or, as bio-warfare expert William Patrick noted in a speech carried on this website, some bioagents can only be kept at bay with live attenuated vaccines, yet these vaccines are deadly to unborn babies. Other adverse reactions to vaccines are inevitable as well, but the defensive measures hold great promise nonetheless.

    In the meantime while Americans wait, this season`s attacks must be dealt with through damage-control: Containing the spread and degree of anthrax infections. The U.S. public-health system is barely up to that task, according to Congressional testimony. If the bio attacks affected thousands of victims at a time instead of dozens, the system would be quickly overwhelmed by demands for diagnosis and treatment.

    Yet damage-control is the best the U.S. can do for now. At bottom, public-health officials must improve their ability to diagnose a patient who has fallen victim to a bio attack, communications among public-health facilities, so that notification of an attack is passed on quickly, the stockpile of antibiotics such as Ciprofloxacin, and the speed of their diagnoses and the logistics of providing victims with antibiotics and other treatments.

    This wave of anthrax attacks, the most recent being today's attack on the New York Post newspaper, is sure to prompt the U.S. public to demand better defenses than we have now. The authoritative Defense Science Board has been working for months on a biodefenses study. Its release should be hastened so that its proposals can be implemented A.S.A.P.
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