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    "When many cures are offered for a disease, it means the disease is not curable" -Anton Chekhov

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    Monday, January 24, 2005

    Preparedness Watch: When terrorists flew airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, there were quite a few lamentations in the media questioning why we were so ill prepared for such a scenario. The common line was if Hollywood could imagine it, why couldn't those responsible for our national defense? And yet, there are those who still haven't absorbed the lessons of that day. They want to shut down research on bioterrorism defense/a>:

    Others argue that the known terrorist groups have little sophistication about biological weapons. Instead, these critics say, the biodefense expansion has been fueled by a scramble for federal money.

    Currently there are four Biosafety Level 4 laboratories nationwide, with six more planned; 50 laboratories operate at Biosafety Level 3, sufficient to work with anthrax, and 19 more are planned at universities and government institutions, according to the Sunshine Project, a Texas group that is tracking the growth.

    In the only major bioterrorist attack in American history - the anthrax-laced letters mailed to news media figures and two senators in fall 2001, killing five people - F.B.I. investigators have focused chiefly on the theory that the anthrax originated not with outside terrorists but within an American biodefense program.

    By the same token, the critics say, the tularemia that sickened the workers in Boston would not have existed if not for bioterror research. Dr. Richard H. Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University, said the disease "has zero public-health importance." Only about 130 cases a year are reported in the United States.

    The tularemia cases were in three biodefense labworkers who mishandled a specimen. Tularemia in its natural form is not transmissable from person to person. (You get it from rabbits.) Certainly, safety and security at these labs should be high priority. There's no room for shoddy work, but arguing that the whole program should be shut down is an over-reaction born of hysteria. One researcher puts the threat into perspective:

    One scientist who supports the increase in biodefense spending, Dr. Tara O'Toole, does not dismiss the safety issues. In fact, she said, the biodefense expansion has focused attention on long-neglected biosafety rules. But she believes the danger of bioterrorism is so great that the billions of dollars being spent on protections may not be enough.

    "I think bioterrorism is the biggest national security threat of the 21st century," said Dr. O'Toole, director of the Center for Biosecurity of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. "So I want a robust biodefense research and development program."

    Dr. O'Toole recently helped organize a bioterror exercise, called Atlantic Storm, in which terrorists attack with smallpox in the United States and four foreign countries, killing more than 87,000 people. Such a potential toll puts the risk of laboratory accidents in a different perspective.

    But is that situation realistic, when nothing remotely approaching such an attack has ever occurred?

    Amazing that a newspaper in the same city where the Twin Towers once stood could print that last line.

    posted by Sydney on 1/24/2005 07:58:00 AM 0 comments


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