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David Siegrist: The threat from biological terrorism



David Siegrist is a research fellow and the director of studies for the Countering Biological Terrorism program at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. He has been a long-term consultant to the Department of Defense, where he has analyzed a broad range of national security technology issues. He joined the CNN.com chat room from Arlington, VA.

CNN: Welcome, David Siegrist, and thank you for being with us today.

DAVID SIEGRIST: Thank you. It's my pleasure to be here today.

CNN: How much of a threat exists from the use of bioterrorism?

SIEGRIST: I think the threat is significant and increasing, especially after the events of last week. I think last week marks a major escalation, and I'm concerned that further escalation can lead to use of biological weapons by terrorists. I think that the terrorists showed that they are not necessarily constrained from causing mass casualties.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What is the biggest threat? Smallpox or anthrax?

SIEGRIST: I think that the biggest threat would be smallpox, because it has been eliminated world-wide from occurring naturally, and we are all immunologically naive now. That is, that smallpox would race rapidly through an exposed population However, the US has some 12 million doses of smallpox vaccine and an effective approach would be to vaccinate all of the people exposed to people who have smallpox. Smallpox vaccine can confer immunity if given promptly after exposure.

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Concerning anthrax, seed cultures are much more easily obtained than smallpox, which exists legally in just two locations world-wide. Anthrax, however is endemic around the world and is more subject to cultivation by amateur terrorists. However, anthrax is infectious, but not contagious person to person, so it presents a more limited threat.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What capability do our enemies have as far as delivering the threat of bioterrorism, meaning how might they not only develop it, but actually deliver it?

SIEGRIST: Virtually all the nations on the State Department's list of countries that support terrorism are also assessed to be developing biological and chemical weapons. It would be a great mistake for them to attack the U.S. directly. However, one concern might be if they were to supply some of their weapons to a trans-national actor in the hopes that their participation would not be detected. State sponsors could develop fairly sophisticated delivery systems to be used by relatively inexperienced terrorists. There are many ways that the germs could be disseminated to the target.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: How can we prepare ourselves and our families to survive a bioterrorist attack?

SIEGRIST: The nation has taken a number of important strides to protect us from biological and chemical attack. There exist great capabilities to do so. The overall plan on how to do it is somehow disjointed. That is currently being addressed by the federal government.

On an individual basis, the odds of being infected in a biological attack are significantly less than being asked to be a guest on the "Tonight Show." One of the things that could be done would be to have an approximately two-week supply of an antibiotic such as ciprofloxacin which would prevent anthrax symptoms from manifesting themselves if you were infected by the germs. Biological agents are not volatile, that is they do not evaporate into the air. They need to be stirred up in order to be inhaled by a person. And that is where they are most dangerous You can get, for example, cutaneous anthrax through cuts on skin, but doctors can cure that. Inhalational anthrax, for instance, is much more of a threat.

Nevertheless, if you were concerned that an anthrax attack was underway, you could gain considerable protection from wearing a mask or some kind of improvised filter. In addition, buildings and being indoors provide significant levels of protection. Further, in some office buildings, there is positive air pressure in stairwells, and that is always useful. Let me repeat, however, that people should not be extraordinarily concerned to protect themselves on a continuing basis against a biological threat. Rather, the government should support planning, resourcing and research to provide protection for the nation in the event it is needed.

CNN: Have there been many incidences of terrorism using either chemical or biological weapons?

SIEGRIST: The answer is yes, there have been a number of chemical incidents and rather fewer biological incidents The best work on this is by Dr Seth Carus of the National Defense University. In his study, "Bioterrorism and Bio-crimes," although he reports over 80 incidents of biological and toxin use, most of it concerns attacks on individuals, and not the type of wide-spread biological challenge that concerns many of us.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Does the U.S. have the ability to use germ warfare ready to respond to any attacks?

SIEGRIST: The U.S. renounced offensive biological warfare in 1969. The U.S. has no stockpiled germ weapons. The U.S. would not respond with germ weapons to the use of germ weapons. However, the U.S. may use nuclear weapons or large conventional weapons to respond to a biological attack.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Would you recommend purchasing any type of gas mask or breathing apparatus? Are there certain types or specifications of masks or filters that would work better than others?

SIEGRIST: Again, I would caution against overreaction. That being said, having a gas mask around probably wouldn't hurt. The Israelis have done interesting work in this area, and you could find their web site for the Israeli Defense Force Homeland Command which lists some of their equipment and their recommendations for protecting civilian populations in the event of an emergency. In general, for biological agents to be effective, they need to be in the 1 to 5 micron diameter range So any surgical masks, which are relatively inexpensive, would be useful against almost all biological agents. Protection against chemical weapons requires more sophisticated masks

CHAT PARTICIPANT: How can we even detect a bioweapon? It's not as if we can train dogs to sniff smallpox.

SIEGRIST: As a matter of fact, I am told that patients with smallpox do have a particular smell, by someone who helped eradicate the last large smallpox outbreak. Unfortunately, however, the underlying premise of your question is correct. The first sign that the U.S. had experienced a biological attack might be the presentation of sick individuals at health care facilities. The Centers for Disease Control and the military are developing disease surveillance systems such as NEDDS, the National Electronic Disease Detection System, to rapidly report unusual outbreaks of disease so that trained epidemiologists can investigate them further to determine if there has been a deliberate pathogen release. If such a release is detected, the CDC has assembled a national pharmaceutical stockpile broken into "push packages" that can be delivered to localities around the country to mitigate the impact of any such release.

CNN: Do you have any final thoughts to share with us?

SIEGRIST: Well, I think that the US needs to put someone in charge of the overall preparedness effort, and the President has spoken about setting up an office of national preparedness at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. I support that idea.

Also, there is a bill by Rep Wayne Gilchrest called HR-525 which is being marked up today, which would support that. Once this office is in place, the U.S. needs to develop a coherent strategy for preparedness. And again, I think a lot of the pieces are in place, they just need to be coordinated.

Thirdly, I think localities need to develop plans to respond to bioterrorism. For instance, in the recent TOPOFF exercise, the federal government was able to get a push package of needed medications to the target city relatively rapidly. However, the city did not then have an effective plan to break down the bulk medications into individual doses and distribute them. All localities should develop their own plans for mass distribution of medicines and for responding to a bioterrorism event. There is a template to help them that is available from the Army. It is called "The Biological Weapons Improved Response Program" which you could find by putting BWIRP into a good search engine.

Next, I think we need to develop an end-to-end system simulation for responding to mass casualty attacks so that the great coordination that would be needed in such a response could be practiced and trained. This would also give great insights into what equipment is needed and the relationships of the various participants. As you know, there are over 1,600 jurisdictions in the US and so even when the federal government is well organized to combat terrorism, they need to coordinate with the states and localities to insure an effective response.

Finally, the Department of Health and Human Services should be given indemnity by Congress to develop new vaccines -- this indemnification already exists for the Departments of Defense and Energy. This would be done to help the DHHS to procure needed medications and vaccines in a timely fashion to provide a useful response to certain pathogens that may be of terrorist interest. Those are my quick thoughts about what can be done in the near term.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today.

SIEGRIST: It has been my pleasure, thank you!

David Siegrist joined the CNN.com chat room by telephone and CNN provided a typist. This is an edited transcript of the chat which took place on Thursday, September 20, 2001.






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