WASHINGTON – The United States is thinly shielded against biological weapons,witnesses warned lawmakers Wednesday,in the first of a series of hearings on the issue.
The House Subcommittee on Prevention of Nuclear and Biological Attack heard testimony from three witnesses who said the threat of a biological attack from diseases such as anthrax was greater than a nuclear attack and less detectable.
Tracking nuclear material and the equipment needed to covert it into a weapon means making sure all materials are accounted for,said James R. Langevin,D-R.I. “We don't have that luxury in the case of biological weapons.”
Members of the subcommittee agreed that the threat of bioterrorism is great but did not agree on a plan of action.
Rep. Norman D. Dicks,D-Wash.,said the Department of Homeland Security was dragging its feet on coming up with a plan to combat bioterrorism.
Of the 60 agents listed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,Dicks said DHS has assessed the risks and formulated a crisis management plan for only four of them,including anthrax and smallpox.
“Some experts believe that the hurdle for terrorist organizations to translate microorganisms into biological weapons is relatively high,” said Rep. Christopher Cox,R-Calif.,chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security. “Others believe that this is a thin line of ignorance that can easily be crossed.”
Robert Brent,director and president of the Molecular Sciences Institute,a non-profit research institute in Berkley,Calif.,said the knowledge to create harmful bacteria is prolific.
“There are tens of thousands of people worldwide who can now engineer drug-resistant bacteria,and thousands with the ability to remake a virus like SARS,or perform other engineering tasks too numerous to mention,” Brent said.
Of all the biological threats,anthrax would be the most likely to surface,predicted Ken Alibeck,director of the Center for Biodefense at George Mason University's Manassas,Va.,campus. He once headed the civilian branch of the former Soviet Union's offensive biological weapons program.
Alibeck said there is no quick diagnosis for anthrax.
Brent said terrorists might want to use a more contagious disease than anthrax.
The best way to plan ahead for a biological terrorist attack is not to create vaccines or antidote for every possible scenario,but to deter terrorists in the first place,said Michael V. Callahan,director of the Biological Threat Defense and Mass-Casualty Care Center for Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology in Boston.