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Last Updated

19 Dec 2002

Source: Washington Post, September 20, 2002.

Bioterror Targets May Be On Farms

Livestock, Crops Need Protection, Experts Say

By Guy Gugliotta, Washington Post Staff Writer

The United States is highly vulnerable to terrorist attacks on its livestock and food crops and needs a national plan to identify threats, direct research, gather intelligence and respond to outbreaks, a committee of experts said yesterday.

A report by the National Academy of Sciences said that while agricultural bioterrorism was "highly unlikely to result in famine or malnutrition," it could have "major direct and indirect costs to the agricultural economy."

The report also cautioned that there could be "adverse health effects" caused by agents -- such as anthrax -- that can move from animals to humans, as well as "loss of public confidence in the food system ... and widespread public concern and confusion."

The report, titled "Countering Agricultural Bioterrorism," was prepared over the past three years by the academy's National Research Council at the behest of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Parts of the original report dealing with specific case studies were put in a classified annex withheld from the published study.

"We thought about it all along -- whether we were giving anybody a recipe for how to mount an attack," said David R. Franz, a bioterrorism expert and NAS panelist who is vice president of the Southern Research Institute. "You always have to weigh your vulnerability against the need to educate people about what they're up against and to overcome their natural reticence."

Reticence, however, is no longer a problem, said Iowa State University veterinarian Harley W. Moon, chairman of the 12-member NAS panel.

"September 11 fixed that," Moon said. "People became so urgent that they went ahead on their own." But while "there's increased general awareness and agency interaction," he added, "we need a national response, as well."

In one sign of increased intensity over agricultural bioterrorism, the Agricultural Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service early this week was able to enlist the help of veterinarians, hog farmers, state officials and veterinary labs across the country to watch for evidence of swine disease from genetically altered bacteria cultures stolen from a Michigan State University lab a week ago.

The genetically altered bacterium, Actinobacillus pleuropneumoniae, can cause pneumonia, encephalitis and death in pigs but is not dangerous to humans and is hard to spread. "If you were going to pick a pathogen, this would not be high on the list," said Ron DeHaven, deputy administrator at APHIS.

Nevertheless, because of "the potential of it to be a bioterrorist event," DeHaven held a conference call to enlist help from stakeholders at all levels of the pig farming industry.

"If this had happened 13 or 14 months ago, we probably wouldn't have thought twice about it, but we have to assume the worst and be prepared," he said.

According to the NAS panel, preparation requires a national coordinating center. Panelist R. James Cook, a Washington State University plant pathologist, said the participants wanted to make the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention their model. The CDC is a research center and early warning system for outbreaks of human disease.

"We don't know what will happen or whether there will even be bricks and mortar," Cook said. "We just need to be able to do what the CDC does -- get the information we need in real time."

The panel noted that the Agriculture Department already has a well-developed infrastructure to deal with plant pathogens and animal diseases that come into the country accidentally. These have included San Francisco's Mediterranean fruit flies, in the early 1980s, to Florida's citrus canker in the 1990s and today's mosquito-borne West Nile virus.

But the panel cautioned that deliberate infestation demanded a far more extensive menu of precautions, including stringent border monitoring, better overseas intelligence and research to develop resistant plant strains and assemble genetic libraries of likely "threat agents."

Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman noted in a statement that the department has several initiatives similar to those outlined in the report, including identifying a priority list of threat agents, allocating increased funds for bioterrorism research and strengthening its laboratories.

"Because of these aggressive efforts, our nation's food and agriculture infrastructure is stronger today than a year ago," she said. "However, threats remain, and we must work in a responsible and aggressive manner to continue strengthening these programs."

The NAS panel's Moon praised USDA for increasing funding to establish a network of diagnostic labs -- five for livestock and five for plants -- that could be called on to make quick assessments of dangerous pathogens even as they are discovered.