Experts concerned about U.S. ability to find source of bioattack

A panel of biodefense experts recently agreed that they are concerned about the U.S. government's ability to determine the source of a biological attack.

The panel discussion, entitled "Biosecurity: Confronting Existent and Emerging Unknowns," was the first in a three part event that took place at the Washington, D.C., offices of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

"One of the grandest challenges of this world in biosecurity is discerning to a reasonable degree of certainty, if an event is it deliberate, accident, or natural," Chris Bidwell, a U.S. Navy commander and a professor at Georgetown University, said.

The type of action in response to a biological attack would vary greatly depending on its source or motive, and misattribution could be extremely costly to the U.S. public or U.S. interests.

"I really do worry about developing and validating sufficient science so that when the call comes, that we have the tools in place," Randy Murch of Virginia Tech said. "They have to be in place before the fact, and validated, so that when the call comes from the White House, U.S. government agency, or actually world leaders asking for U.S. assistance, that we can provide the kind of science which results in the information necessary to inform a proper decision."

According to Murch, the United States laid the foundations for developing forensic research into biological attacks in 1996. Its capabilities expanded rapidly following the 2001 anthrax attacks.

"In the run-up to the war with Iraq, there was a lot of concern because there was a legitimate question as to whether or not Iraq had chemical and biological weapons and would be willing to use them once we gave Saddam Hussein the ultimatum to leave the country," Kristin Omberg of Los Alamos National Laboratory said. "And so that was when we started looking nationally at bio-detection."

The panel disagreed on the effectiveness of the BioWatch program, which was designed to sample the air in U.S. cities for the presence of five major biothreat agents. Lawmakers and scientists have expressed skepticism about the program, specifically about a number of reported false alarms. Murch explained his reaction on learning of a BioWatch alert.

"My first response was, what, dead rabbit near the sensor?" Murch said. "And it was a tularemia alert and it was a dead rabbit near the sensor."

Omberg said she had more faith in BioWatch and disagreed with the assessment that it reported false alarms.

"It doesn't tend to pick things up that aren't there," Omberg said. "It's just that it wasn't due to a terrorist attack."

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