OFFICIAL: U.S. HAS BIOTERRORISM HOLES
08 Jan 2003
Source: Associated Press, January 8, 2003
Official: U.S. Has Bioterrorism Holes
By MATT KELLEY, Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON - The United States has some serious holes in its defenses against the kind of biological weapons the military assumes Iraq has, the Army's top biological defense expert said Wednesday.
The Pentagon has few or no vaccines or treatments for several biological weapons Iraq has acknowledged producing, such as botulinum toxin, said Col. Erik Henchal, head of the Army's biological defense laboratory. Other holes in the military's biological defenses include the lack of good vaccines or treatments for plague, various viruses which cause the brain inflammation called encephalitis and bacterial poisons called staphlococcal enterotoxins, Henchal said.
"We're trying to fill those holes as best we can," said Henchal, who directs the Army's Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, or USAMRIID.
For example, the Army lab has developed vaccine-like preventative treatments for the seven forms of deadly botulinum poison but hasn't had the money to get them into full-scale production, he said.
"We've been fairly helpless, except to say we hope someone's paying attention," Henchal told a group of reporters.
"Until 9-11, it was difficult to get the pharmaceutical industry interested in our products. We have 20 medical products on the goal line, waiting to go."
Military officials assume Iraq has biological weapons including the smallpox virus, and Iraq can produce novel germ weapons such as antibiotic-resistant bacteria, Henchal said.
He said the Army is sending its only mobile biological testing unit to the Persian Gulf this week. The Maryland-based unit does rapid testing to help confirm an attack with germ weapons.
U.S. military intelligence officials say biological weapons are one of Iraq's few major threats to American forces should President Bush decide to go to war. The Pentagon assumes Saddam has the missiles, aircraft and other gear needed to launch a biological attack against either military or civilian targets in the region.
Anthrax is the military's top biological weapon worry, since it's a common, hardy bacterium that's relatively easy to make into a deadly weapon, Henchal said. But countries like Iraq might be reluctant to use anthrax against U.S. troops because American soldiers are immunized against anthrax and have the antibiotics needed to treat anthrax illness, he said.
That makes botulinum toxins a big worry.
The U.S. military has some botulinum toxoids, which are inactivated forms of the poisons which work like vaccines to prevent the poisons' deadly effects. But those toxoids are losing potency, Henchal said. USAMRIID hopes to have vaccines against two botulinum toxins in production by the end of the year, he said.
The U.S. military assumes that North Korea, as well as Iraq, has samples of the smallpox virus, and it's possible the two countries have exchanged information on that and other biological weapons, Henchal said. He said "it's a bit of a fantasy" to assume that the only smallpox samples in the world are the two publicly declared samples in the United States and Russia.
"It's clear from intelligence that the genie is out of the bottle," Henchal said of smallpox.