What if Washington DC got hit with a bioterrorist attack -- and no one noticed? That's the scenario Mark Benjamin sketches out in Salon.
On Sept. 24, 2005, tens of thousands of protesters marched past the White House and flooded the National Mall near 17th Street and Constitution Avenue...Unknown to the crowd, biological-weapons sensors, scattered for miles across Washington by the Department of Homeland Security... sucked in trace amounts of deadly bacteria called Francisella tularensis. The government fears it is one of six biological weapons most likely to be used against the United States...The DHS scrambled... on Sept. 30 -- six days after the deadly pathogens set off the sensors and well into the incubation period for tularemia -- alerted public health officials across the country to be on the lookout for tularemia, the deadly disease caused by F. tularensis...Sept. 24 was not the first time the Bio Watch sensors had detected possible biological weapons pathogens. Since the system was deployed, sensors around the United States have identified pathogens that could be used as biological weapons on five separate occasions, Jeffrey Stiefel, program manager for Bio Watch chemical countermeasures, said at an open lecture at the National Institutes of Health on Oct. 6. In all of those cases, the detections were apparently the result of natural phenomena. Indeed, some critics have long worried that one weakness of the Bio Watch program might be the difficulty of distinguishing between natural events and terrorism...As for how the bacteria may have erupted through natural processes, says [Dr. Steven] Hinrichs of the University of Nebraska Center, "I can't imagine how it could have happened..."Regardless of the source, [Alan Pearson, a former DHS official, who is now the biological and chemical weapons director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation] says he was troubled that it took the government nearly a week to alert the public. "It points out that the system is still not working fast enough," he says. "If it turned out to be something that really affected people, which it turned out not to be, the system was too slow."All true. But doesn't this "attack" also show how unattractive a weapon f. tularensis really is? Until now, Al-Qaeda and Co. have gravitated towards spectacular strikes -- one with lots of explosions -- and towards simple ones, that require a minimum amount of technology and expertise to pull off. Spreading f. tularensis over the Mall violates both of those rules of thumb. Could this be the harbinger of a new wave of bioterror attacks? I guess, maybe. But I'd worry more about subway bombs and hijacked planes instead.THERE'S MORE: Jason Sigger, a chem-bio specialist, is less diplomatic. He says the Salon piece is "full of crap."
This is the problem with BioWatch, in that many natural pathogens will set these things off just fine without stirring up ideas of terrorist incidents. They're not that sensitive, they're air samplers that allow techs to take sample swabs to the labs for analysis. Tularemia is a natural bioorganism found in the environment. Lots of people kicking up dust on the Mall, the organisms float around. The BioWatch sensors HAVE false alarmed in Houston and LA at least (pretty sure) and probably other places unreported. The false alarm rate is in the single digits, but that still generates a number of false alarms. The public health people want this to be taken as a terrorist incident because it would increase their chances of getting more money into the general public health infrastructure, which is their goal to answer bioterrorism.Tuli is a great BW agent, very infectious but not contagious, not a lethal agent as noted here - too easy to treat once detected. But the idea that this was a terrorist test? come on. If the feds were excited, it's because the combination of a large public event and the alarms were suspicious, but there's no big deal here. False alarm from detectors, fuel for the bioterrorism talking heads, good Tom Clancy material, nothing more. Bottom line, no one got sick, no one died, it wasn't a terrorist incident.He's got more to say over at his blog, Armchair Generalist.