New Warning Of Biological
Weapons Threat To The World
By June Preston

ATLANTA (Reuters) - Biological weapons are easily made and deployed, and the spread of anthrax and smallpox in a terrorist attack could spark an uncontrollable pandemic, an expert in infectious diseases said Tuesday. ``A chemical release or major explosion is far more manageable than a biological attack,'' former World Health Organization (WHO) scientist D.A. Henderson told scientists from more than 70 countries.
Henderson said if anthrax bacteria or the eradicated smallpox virus were unleashed, the number of victims would increase exponentially because the vast majority of people have no immunity to the long-dormant diseases they cause. Henderson, now with Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health in Baltimore, helped lead the WHO project that eradicated smallpox two decades ago.
Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was virtually certain the smallpox virus would continue to exist only in laboratories at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and at the Soviet Vector base in Siberia. But Henderson said the Siberia base may be vulnerable to guerrilla groups and governments that want to develop smallpox weapons.
``Vector was once protected by well-armed guards and barbed wire fences, but the barbed wire is gone now and the guards, who haven't been paid in months, can be persuaded with a little vodka,'' he said.
Smallpox could cause widespread harm if it were released. ``First, you should be reminded that the last smallpox vaccination in this country was administered in 1972,'' Henderson said.
``The only people vaccinated over the next eight years were workers in hospitals and laboratories, but by and large few people have been vaccinated since 1972 and I would suspect only 10 to 15 percent of the U.S. population has any antibodies to the disease.''
If a small volume of smallpox were released, the first cases would not likely be diagnosed for nine or 10 days, when victims would get a rash. During that time, the exposed population would be spreading the disease to other people.
Because laboratories are not up to speed on testing for smallpox, it could take a while to discover any outbreak. He said only about 15 million doses of smallpox vaccine were stockpiled in the United States.
Anthrax, an animal disease that is often fatal in humans, had been developed as a weapon by Iraq and groups such as Aum Shinri Kyo (the Supreme Truth Sect), the Japanese doomsday cult that released sarin nerve gas on Japan's subway system in 1995, killing 12 people and injuring thousands, Henderson said.
``Their particular interest is because anthrax is so easily acquired and so easily mass-produced,'' Henderson said. The United Nations has demanded Baghdad dispose of all biological weapons, and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein recently agreed to allow U.N. inspectors to examine his presidential palaces to see whether any are stored there. Henderson said at least 11 nations were known to have biological weapons.
``There are nations and dissident groups that have both access to the biological agents and people intelligent enough to know the means of deploying them,'' he said. The most efficient way to deploy a biological agent is via aerosol spray, which can rapidly spread a virus if aimed in the direction of the prevailing wind, he said. ``Even small groups can wreak considerable havoc, and they are prepared to do so,'' Henderson said. ^REUTERS@

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