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Last Updated

15 Jan 2003

Source: Washington Post, April 29, 2002.

Study Urges Focus On Terrorism With High Fatalities, Cost

By Bill Miller, Washington Post Staff Writer

A million people could die if terrorists launch a biological attack that widely disperses smallpox, anthrax, ebola or other agents, according to a new study that analyzes the damage that could be caused by the use of weapons of mass destruction.

Even though such a biological attack was deemed extremely unlikely, a team of scholars from the Brookings Institution said the Bush administration should concentrate homeland security efforts on similar doomsday terrorist scenarios that have the potential for causing the largest numbers of deaths and economic losses, and the greatest psychological damage.

The study estimated that 100,000 people would die if a nuclear bomb hit a major U.S. city and that 10,000 would perish in a successful attack on a nuclear or toxic chemical plant. If weapons of mass destruction were directed against the shipping industry, the report said, the economy could suffer up to $1 trillion in losses.

The report, scheduled for release Tuesday, is one of the most comprehensive studies since the Sept. 11 attacks, which killed more than 3,000 people at the Pentagon and World Trade Center and in Pennsylvania. The authors, who specialize in economic and foreign policy studies, said they hoped to aid policymakers such as Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, who is developing a national strategy, figure out where to put resources.

Ridge's staff already has devoted much attention to "high consequence" scenarios, such as attacks using thermonuclear devices, smallpox and other potential weapons of mass destruction. But administration officials have cautioned that assessing threats and assigning probabilities is difficult because authorities don't know about all terrorist cells and because terrorists frequently shift tactics.

Because the government and private industry cannot guard against every conceivable kind of attack, the Brookings authors maintained that officials should devote the bulk of resources to protecting against nuclear, chemical or biological terrorism as well as more conventional large-scale attacks at places such as airports, seaports, nuclear and chemical plants, stadiums, large commercial buildings, and monuments and other icons.

"There are an unlimited number of potential vulnerabilities," said report author Michael E. O'Hanlon. "We're going to have to spend some time prioritizing and organizing our thinking. We really should be focusing on potentially catastrophic attacks, meaning large numbers of casualties or large damage to the economy."

O'Hanlon, who specializes in foreign policy studies, said the estimates concerning economic and human losses were based on a 1993 government report done for Congress about weapons of mass destruction, the casualties from the atomic bombs released in World War II, previous disasters and criminal acts, economic data and other factors.

The Department of Health and Human Services is building up a stockpile of smallpox and anthrax vaccines, working with states to improve early-warning disease networks, and taking other steps to prevent or respond to bioterrorist threats. D.A. Henderson, director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness, an arm of HHS, said yesterday that the government is "in much, much better shape today than three months ago."

Henderson, a physician who led efforts to eliminate smallpox in 1977, said the study's casualty estimates were not out of the realm of possibility for smallpox and anthrax but that the prospect of a huge ebola attack was remote.

"Quite candidly, I think smallpox ranks way at the top," he said.

The Brookings scholars said the government should invest heavily in technology to identify and apprehend suspected terrorists before they can strike.

The report estimated that a biological attack in a major urban area could create $750 billion in economic damage, and that widespread terror against a key part of the economy -- such as shopping malls or movie theaters -- could cost $250 billion.

The White House is seeking about $38 billion in the fiscal 2003 budget for homeland security, including $10.6 billion for border security, $5.9 billion to defend against bioterrorism, $3.5 billion for local police, firefighters and other emergency responders, $4.8 billion for aviation security and $722 million for new technology. Ridge has said the amounts are but a "down payment" in a multiyear plan.

The Brookings study said even that amount isn't enough.

Shoring up security will likely cost the government $45 billion a year, the report said, adding that private industry will need to spend up to $10 billion annually. In some cases, new regulations will be required to bring the private sector in line, the report said; in others, lower insurance rates or other incentives could be offered.

Economic specialist Peter R. Orszag, another team member, said the group sought to identify the "most glaring vulnerabilities" to help frame public debate.

Called "Protecting the American Homeland," the report credits Ridge and the White House for setting many sound priorities, but urged more spending on information systems for law enforcement. It also recommended significantly higher spending on air defenses, cargo security, food safety and cyber-security. More must be done, the report added, to protect the nation's 12,000 chemical facilities and 103 nuclear power plants, and to shield air-intake systems of skyscrapers from biological or chemical agents.

In recent months, Henderson and other government officials have warned about many of the same threats. Customs Commissioner Robert C. Bonner, for example, has said that the detonation of a nuclear device hidden in a ship's cargo container would cause massive damage and indefinitely shut down the shipping industry. Bonner said the United States must win agreements with other countries that have "megaports" in which cargo is checked at the point of origin.