- LAS VEGAS - They scarcely
seem like the classic tools of terrorists: mooing cows, oinking pigs, and
clucking chickens. But specialists in public health and agriculture warn
that the nation's livestock and crops remain particularly vulnerable to
terrorists, threatening the US agricultural system with viral and bacterial
infections that could cripple the economy.
- Computer models show that an infection such as foot and
mouth disease, which decimated Britain's beef industry in 2001, could sweep
through 44 states within two weeks of its introduction at a handful of
farms in a single state, resulting in 48 million livestock being put to
- Although many of the infections, including foot and mouth,
pose no direct threat to human health, the economic consequences would
be ruinous, specialists said at the Harvard-sponsored BioSecurity 2002
conference, and would seed considerable doubt about the safety of the nation's
- Foot and mouth virus ravaged agriculture as well as tourism
in England, forcing quarantine measures against 10,000 farms and the destruction
of 6 million cows, sheep, and pigs.
- ''It is a perfect weapon for doing the kinds of things
terrorists do,'' said Dr. Thomas J. McGinn III, assistant state veterinarian
in North Carolina. ''As a target, you can imagine why they would hit something
like this and as a weapon, they could spread it wherever they want.''
- Federal authorities consider the threat so significant
that defense against agricultural bioterrorism has a special place in the
newly created Department of Homeland Security. Also, last summer, in an
exercise conducted at the behest of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld,
40 veterinarians, emergency planners, and military authorities convened
for a boardroom drill to assess the potential impact of bioterrorism targeted
at farms and food processing sites.
- The exercise, dubbed Silent Prairie, assumed that the
destruction could begin with something as common as a cotton swab dabbed
with viral particles.
- The dean of the Harvard School of Public Health is so
troubled by those threats that he called for the creation of an agency
akin to the US Centers for Disease Control to monitor the welfare of the
nation's crops and plants. Barry R. Bloom, the Harvard dean who served
on a panel evaluating the threat of bioterrorism, told hundreds of public
health, military, and private security authorities at the conference that
the United States is woefully lacking in its ability to swiftly identify
contaminants being introduced into livestock and plants.
- ''There's relatively little surveillance,'' Bloom said.
''It's an enormous task, and we're not prepared.''
- That remains the case even though the potential for terrorists
to cause illness and fear by infecting the food supply became dramatically
evident 18 years ago, when members of a fringe religious cult spiked salad
bars at 10 Oregon restaurants with salmonella. The result: 750 people became
- The damage that could be wrought by a more widespread
attack, initiated at multiple sites, is profound, Bloom and other specialists
said. Agriculture generates $1 trillion in economic impact annually, accounting
for 13 percent of the gross domestic product.
- Farming is an exceptionally porous industry from a security
standpoint, with 24,000 livestock ferried out of just one state, North
Carolina, every day, destined for markets across the world. If terrorists
chose a virus such as foot and mouth disease, it would spread with stunning
efficiency. Studies have shown that the virus can be carried by the wind
up to 40 miles; once introduced to a herd, it is 100 percent infectious.
- ''If someone's determined enough to get something in,
they will get it in,'' said Dr. Cindy S. Lovern, assistant director of
emergency preparedness and response for the American Veterinary Medical
Association. ''Foot and mouth disease can be brought in on a Q-Tip or the
bottom of your boot. That's why it's so critical to find it fast and to
treat it quickly.''
- Foot and mouth is often not fatal to animals, but in
the short term produces hideous blistering, and in the long term, impairs
their use as productive livestock. The disease rarely produces severe illness
in humans, although people can transmit it to animals. Specialists at the
BioSecurity conference conjured scenarios in which other viruses and bacteria
(including plague, anthrax, and tularemia) could be introduced into animal
populations, with the ultimate goal of spreading illness to humans. That
probably would prove not to be a particularly efficient mode of transmission
but would spawn considerable fear. Early detection of a biological attack
is paramount, specialists said.
- But the arrival of West Nile virus, blamed for sickening
3,700 people this year and killing more than 200, demonstrates how unprepared
the nation is for animal disease outbreaks. Until Dr. Tracey McNamara began
testing dead crows near the Bronx Zoo, the emergence of West Nile had gone
undetected. ''We still haven't done what needs to be done,'' McNamara said.
''Everybody pays lip service that animals can serve as sentinels of disease
outbreak and bioterrorism, but it seems to be a hard concept to fund.''
- Stephen Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org