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Last Updated

14 Feb 2003

Source: Los Angeles Times, February 14, 2003


Duct Tape and Anthrax

Anyone complying with the government's call to lead a "normal life" while wriggling through plastic-covered doorways has a right to wonder why authorities haven't duct-taped together a better policy to prevent bioterrorism.

Important as this week's chilling home improvement advice may be, Washington should be addressing higher priorities, such as finding the money to train and equip local fire departments and other agencies that would be first on the scene of a terror attack. Yet in Los Angeles and many other cities, health officials still lack bioterror detectors, emergency room physicians still wait for protective suits and firefighters use radios that are on incompatible frequencies.

The government also should be scrambling to improve its rudimentary system for tracking how Ebola, the plague, anthrax and other deadly pathogens move through U.S. laboratories. The government requires the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to keep track of at least 350 national labs known to possess stockpiles of "select agents" -- the 42 pathogens and toxins that pose the greatest dangers. But the CDC's surveillance program is fraught with problems that present an "urgent and potentially serious public health threat," according to a recent General Accounting Office report.

The accounting office concluded that the CDC had just 13 employees conducting the inspections, using guidelines just two pages long. This front-line defender against bioterrorism needs more money. The administration says it will come up with the cash and funnel it through the Homeland Security Department. Someday. But the new Bush budget slashes bioterrorism funding for the CDC by $233 million.

Finally, though the United States has primitive means to track bioweapons at home, it has virtually no way to do so abroad. The only practical way to monitor the movement of pathogens globally is to add enforcement and monitoring mechanisms to the Biological Weapons Convention, a toothless 1972 treaty that bans the development, production and stockpiling of biological weapons.

In November, however, Bush administration officials defeated a U.N.-led effort to add such safeguards to the treaty. The only add-on the U.S. allowed was a timid provision saying that nations should meet annually to discuss a review conference scheduled for 2006.

Meanwhile, the threat grows. Al Qaeda defectors reportedly have revealed plans to release biological agents in Western countries. One of Osama bin Laden's key biographers, Yossef Bodansky, insists that the reclusive sponsor of mass murder has acquired Ebola and salmonella viruses from Russia, botulinum toxin and equipment for production from the Czech Republic and anthrax from North Korea.

Like duck-and-cover drills in the 1950s, knowing how to seal vents and windows may make people feel less helpless against a looming danger. But all the duct tape in every Home Depot in America can't compensate for the nation's lack of a good anti-bioterrorism plan.