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Chem-Bio Attack Looming, Say U.S. Officials  

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by Harold Kennedy 

“Gas! Gas! Gas!” The warning crackled over military radios as clouds of thick, white smoke covered the cold, gray battlefield. One U.S. soldier was overcome and quickly fell unconscious. Others successfully donned their protective gear and charged the enemy, with their M-16s blazing. Within minutes, a medivac helicopter—a Black Hawk emblazoned with bright red crosses—swooped down to whisk away the casualty.

The event wasn’t real. It was a tactical demonstration at the Army’s Pine Bluff Arsenal, the second largest domestic storage site for the nation’s chemical stockpile. It was conducted for visitors attending the Chemical Biological Defense Industrial Base Symposium, in nearby Little Rock, Ark., sponsored by the National Defense Industrial Association.

The demonstration took on added significance in the midst of the U.S.-led war on terrorism. The war is placing unprecedented emphasis upon the nation’s chemical and biological defenses, top military and industrial leaders said during the symposium.

After last fall’s terrorist attacks, “the chem-bio threat was no longer something that was just talked about,” said Army Maj. Gen. John C. Doesburg, commander of the Soldier Biological and Chemical Command (SBCCOM), which includes Pine Bluff. “It was real, and it was killing people.”

Shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, anthrax-contaminated letters, delivered through the U.S. mail system, killed five civilians in four states and the District of Columbia. Another 17 were infected by anthrax, but recovered after being treated with antibiotics, such as ciprofloxacin, which is trademarked as Cipro. In all, more than 5,100 people may have been exposed to anthrax, without becoming infected.

Just who mailed the letters remained a mystery, although evidence pointed toward an as-yet unidentified, disgruntled American scientist, investigators said.

The possibility of chem-bio attacks against the United States, however, is stronger than ever, warned Sen. Tim Hutchinson, R-Ark., ranking minority member of the armed services personnel subcommittee. “Since anthrax was discovered in our mail system, the unthinkable has become thinkable,” he said. “Osama bin Laden has said that it is his religious duty to acquire chemical and biological capability.”

In fact, U.S. forces in Afghanistan, searching deserted al Qaeda facilities, have uncovered evidence of bin Laden’s efforts to develop such weapons. “We have found a number of things that show an appetite for weapons of mass destruction—diagrams, materials, reports that things were asked for, things were discussed at meetings, that type of thing,” Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters.

It’s not just bin Laden who has U.S. officials worried. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein is known to have developed both chemical and biological weapons, including anthrax. In fact, he used chemical weapons against neighboring Iran in the 1980s and against his own people in the 1990s.

In all, at least 25 nations already have or are in the process of developing nuclear, chemical or biological weapons and the means to deliver them.

“In the world of today, we need to be able to protect not only our forward-deployed military personnel, facilities and equipment overseas, but also our loved ones and homes here in the United States,” Doesburg said. “We’re no longer talking about a distant battlefield. We’re talking about a son or a daughter, a wife or a husband.”

A Lot of Focus
Thankfully, he said, the United States has placed “a lot of dollars and a lot of focus” on chemical and biological warfare in the past decade. Operation Desert Storm, against Iraq in 1991, revealed critical deficiencies in U.S. abilities to defend itself against those kinds of attacks. To correct those deficiencies, a number of steps have been taken, officials noted.

In 1994, Congress ordered the Defense Department to establish a Joint Chemical and Biological Defense Program to coordinate the services’ chem-bio efforts, some of which date back to World War I. After the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the department was asked to take charge of chem-bio domestic preparedness.

As part of this effort, SBCCOM is training 120 cities, coast-to-coast, to respond to chemical and biological attacks. It has established a Chemical and Biological Rapid Response Team to act quickly and effectively to national and international terrorist events. In such incidents, this team provides expertise in protecting first responders, detecting chemical and biological agents, decontaminating casualties and establishing command and control systems.

To provide a means for the CB/RRT to have a communications network that is portable and, if necessary, independent of the existing commercial communications infrastructure, SBCCOM developed a Deployed Communications System. The heart of the DCS is a Digital Radio System that can link at least 100 mobile users and is fully compatible with Defense Department and commercial communications venues.

Another SBCCOM team, the Technical Escort Unit, specializes in the daily transportation and handling of chemical and biological agents. This battalion-size unit—headquartered at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., with companies at Pine Bluff, Utah’s Dugway Proving Ground and Virginia’s Fort Belvoir—responds to chem-bio emergencies anywhere in the world.

The technical escorts, however, are stretched thin, Doesburg said. “There are only about 300 of them,” he said, “and I can’t keep track of them. At any one time, they are about 98 percent deployed.”

Separately, the Marine Corps has established a Chemical Biological Incident Response Force, now based at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Indian Head, Md. It also is designed respond rapidly to chemical, biological or nuclear attack.

To provide additional assistance, Congress has authorized the creation of 32 Army National Guard units—known as Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Teams—to assist state and local authorities in responding to domestic WMD incidents. In January, teams from 11 states were certified as fully ready to respond, if needed.

A Long Way to Go
All 32 teams are scheduled to be certified by fiscal year 2003. Each unit will consist of 22 highly skilled, full-time National Guard members, equipped and trained by the federal government.

Despite all of these steps, the United States has a long way to go to develop adequate chem-bio defenses, Hutchinson warned. “At least half of all U.S. communities have taken no steps to protect themselves,” he said. The senator said that he was shocked to see that the only thing separating the anthrax-tainted Hart Senate Office Building and its neighbor on Capitol Hill—the Dirksen Building—was a piece of plywood.

Anthrax is a lethal, infectious, bacterial disease caused by contact with infected animals and products, including meat, or breathing weapon-dispersed spores, officials said. It leaves no indication of exposure—no cloud, color, smell or taste. It can be treated with antibiotics, if administered immediately after exposure. By the time symptoms occur, however, it is 99 percent lethal to unprotected individuals.

There is an anthrax vaccine, known as Anthrax Vaccine Adsorbed, or AVA. The sole manufacturer and distributor is BioPort Corporation, of Lansing, Mich. The vaccine is a sterile product made from what is left over after the filtration of a culture of anthrax bacteria. Because it is sterile, officials said, AVA cannot cause the disease itself.

For the vaccine to be effective, however, six shots must be administered over an 18-month period, with boosters every year.

Also, AVA is in short supply. During the Clinton administration, the Defense Department ordered that all 2.4 million members of the armed services, including reserves and emergency-essential civilian employees, receive vaccinations against anthrax. Between March 1998 and December 2001, officials said, more than 2.1 million doses were administered to more than 525,000 service members, including the defense secretary and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. But some military personnel, fearing adverse reactions, refused the vaccinations.

Then, in June 2001, the department ordered a slowdown in the immunization program, citing delays in the vaccine’s availability. Henceforth, only designated special-mission units, manufacturing and defense research personnel, including those engaged in congressionally mandated anthrax vaccine research, were to receive vaccinations, said Army Secretary Thomas E. White.

Distribution of the vaccine paused in 1998, when the state of Michigan sold the nation’s only production facility to BioPort, and the new owners began renovating the plant. Production resumed in 1999, but distribution remained on hold, pending approval of the renovations by the Federal Food and Drug Administration. Repeated FDA inspections, however, cited evidence of contamination, poor record keeping and unapproved procedures at the factory.

In December, the FDA again inspected the BioPort plant and issued seven “inspectional observations” that still needed attention, according to an FDA spokesman. “BioPort satisfactorily addressed many of these observations during the inspection,” said the spokesman.

Finally, on January 31, the FDA took the last step to allow BioPort to resume distribution. It approved the facility that puts the vaccine into vials, Hollister-Stier Laboratories, of Spokane, Wash.

Hutchinson, however, said it has been a mistake to wait on BioPort. “By any objective measure,” he told the symposium, “our military’s reliance on BioPort as the sole-source producer of anthrax vaccine has been a failure. Today, as we send our troops into combat, many of them are unprotected against anthrax and other pathogens.”

As an alternative, Hutchinson favors construction of a military vaccine-production facility at Pine Bluff.

“It would cost [the Defense Department] $386 million to design, build and validate this important facility,” he said. “Considering that we have already spent over $120 million on BioPort and not received the anthrax that we’ve paid for, this amount seems eminently reasonable. $120 million and no vaccine for our soldiers is unacceptable.”

BioPort’s Kramer sought to reassure a Senate hearing that his facility “is the most cost-effective” way to insure availability of vaccines for civilians or military personnel.

“Contrary to news reports, BioPort has maintained and significantly added to a stockpile of anthrax vaccine since acquiring the facilities in Lansing, Mich.,” Kramer testified. “Although we cannot discuss the specific numbers contained in that stockpile, there is now a considerable amount of anthrax vaccine that could be made immediately available in an emergency.”

In addition, officials said that the Federal Centers for Disease Control, in Atlanta, currently has enough antibiotics to prevent the disease in 2 million persons exposed to anthrax.

Hutchinson, however, said that much more needs to be done. “We need to make a national commitment to enhancing our chemical and biological defense industrial base,” he said. “The threat is increasing every year, every month, every day.”

Over the next 10 years, the chem-bio threat “will certainly increase,” according to a Defense Department’s 2001 report to Congress. “This will result from the development of chemical and biological agents that are more difficult to detect and from the adoption of more capable delivery systems,” the report said. “Any nation with the political will and a minimal industrial base could produce chemical and biological weapon agents suitable for use in warfare.”

To meet this threat, Congress already has allocated $2.9 billion specifically to fight bioterrorism. Much of that will go to stockpile antibiotics, officials said.

In 2003, Bush is proposing to spend $3.5 billion more to enhance the capabilities of first responders. “That is a thousand percent increase over what our government has spent [in the past],” he told a gathering of mayors and county officials. “It’s necessary money.”

The increase would pay for a wide range of equipment, including protective clothing, chemical and biological detection systems and interoperable communications gear, White House officials explained. It would also fund training programs to teach firefighters, police officers and emergency medical technicians how to respond and operate in a chemical or biological environment.

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