State, U officials discuss bioterror

Shira Kantor

In 1984, the Rajneesh cult poisoned hundreds of Oregonians with salmonella in the first, and thus far only, biological weapons attack in the United States. Since Sept. 11, national fear has soared that another attack – either biological or chemical – is on its way.

But while officials do not dispute that an attack is possible, they have been equivocal on their assessment of the nation’s preparedness to handle such a threat.

Political science professor Bradley Thayer of the University’s Duluth campus said while a biological or chemical attack is not guaranteed, its grave consequences deserve close examination.

“It’s a threat, but it’s a threat that has to be kept in perspective,” said Thayer, who co-authored the 1998 book “America’s Achilles’ Heel: Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Terrorism and Covert Attack.”

The skill level and equipment necessary to pull off either a biological or chemical attack are minimal and wouldn’t necessarily require the backing of a state, Thayer said. But, he said, there is some precision required in preparing the biological and chemical agents.

Biological agents, such as anthrax or smallpox, would have to be administered under the right atmospheric conditions – too much wind could destroy the effort. Sunlight, which kills bacteria, and spore size are also crucial.

Nerve agents, such as sarin or mustard gas, are the most likely weapons to be used in a chemical attack, Thayer said. And while they are easily manufactured, the gases must be carefully spread – and best spread in an enclosed area – to have the dangerous effect terrorists desire.

Tuesday, Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the University’s recently established Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, told a U.S. Senate committee that the nation’s defense and response capabilities are sorely lacking and that Congress would be wise to initially spend $2 billion to fill in the gaps.

“The consequences of an infectious disease outbreak due to a bioterrorist attack dramatically illustrate the critical importance of shoring up our public health system; without a comprehensive and timely response, we will realize both an increase in deaths and the potential for previously unseen panic and fear,” Osterholm said, according to a written transcript of his testimony.

But Secretary Tommy G. Thompson of the Department of Health and Human Services has said the nation is capable of handling any biological or chemical threat.

Minnesota Department of Health epidemiologist and veterinarian Heidi Kassenborg said the institution received $1.2 million in federal funding from the Centers for Disease Control two years ago to bolster its capacity for dealing with a bioterrorist attack.

Kassenborg, one of seven MDH specialists in a bioterrorism preparedness and response unit, said the extra funds have gone toward increasing lab capabilities, bioterrorism response training, a heightened surveillance system and strengthening the Minnesota hospitals communications network.

Monday, the MDH began an “active surveillance” program, Kassenborg said, that checks in with 42 intensive care units in the state to monitor the presence of biological agents after the confirmation of two anthrax cases in Florida. But Kassenborg said the MDH has consistently done this kind of monitoring; the bar has simply been raised along with national fears.

“Investigating infectious diseases is our bread and butter,” Kassenborg said. “We do this daily. Bioterrorism is just a different form.”

“We are prepared in the sense that we have experience with infectious diseases and we are able to respond to them quickly,” she said.

Kassenborg did not recommend citizens purchase gas masks – which would have to be worn 24 hours per day and aren’t guaranteed to protect against an attack – or antibiotics, which could be harmful to people who do not need them. Also, some people could become immune to the antibiotics, rendering the medicines ineffective in the future.

And though she said she’s confident in the state’s response capabilities, Kassenborg said Osterholm did not go overboard with his multi-billion-dollar recommendation.

“The public health system has been neglected for a number of years,” she said.

– The Associated Press contributed to this report.