Threat of germ attack rising Defense officials say U.S. isn't prepared for biological warfare

'A long way to go'

Pentagon is urged to improve its efforts for 'homeland' defense

December 27, 1997|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Despite years of warnings from experts, the United States is poorly prepared to defend its armed forces from the rising threat of germ warfare attack and lags even more in protecting Americans at home, defense officials say.

As President Clinton and other leaders have been proclaiming the dangers of biological weapons, officials acknowledge that they are taking only the first steps to develop the high-technology gear, medicine and organization needed to respond to germ arsenals believed held by 16 nations, and perhaps terrorist groups.

So far, the government deserves "a D or a C minus" for its efforts, said one top defense official. "We have a long way to go."

Governments have lagged in preparing for a germ attack because until recently, they have deemed the odds against an attack too long to justify the cost of preparation.

And even now, the threat should not be overstated. While almost any biochemistry major can create germ cultures, it is difficult to turn them into weapons that work. Partly because of this, terrorist groups have shown little interest in germ weapons -- certainly far less than in car bombs or conventional explosives, -- authorities say.

Yet the odds of an attack have been steadily rising, and authorities have begun speaking out on the growing risks as they have made new preparations to deal with them.

Recently, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen announced that all 2.4 million active-duty and reserve troops will be inoculated against anthrax, a deadly bacterium. And last spring, he shifted $500 million to the Pentagon's five-year budget for defense against biological and chemical attacks.

Last month, an expert defense advisory group urged the Pentagon to sharply step up efforts to provide a stronger "homeland" defense against germ and chemical attacks.

Despite this, authorities and outside experts acknowledge that governments have much more to do.

Mass vaccination of all U.S. active-duty and reserve troops against anthrax is a valuable step, most experts agree, because such a move will protect soldiers and sailors from all but the most intense exposures to the biological agent, which is by far the easiest and most inexpensive to use.

But vaccines for other agents and a long-discussed "universal" germ warfare vaccine are probably years away.

At the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md., soldier volunteers help test vaccines for diseases that the Army fears might be used against its troops in biological warfare and for other fevers endemic to areas where America's military serves.

The institute tests vaccines for anthrax, botulism and other deadly diseases.

The program does not use humans to test diseases for which there is no treatment, but volunteers are exposed to less-dangerous diseases, such as sandfly fever and malaria.

Experts have taken long strides since the Persian Gulf war in developing ways to detect germ warfare attack. A laser-based detection system mounted on a Blackhawk helicopter can identify a threatening cloud of agent at 18 miles. Two months ago, the Army fielded a new system that can identify a germ agent in as little as 20 minutes.

It may take years, however, to develop the most valuable tool: a detector that can quickly discover and identify an agent when it has been released.

In addition, officials say that despite infusions of cash, the military needs far more resources. The armed forces have two rapid-response teams on 24-hour alert to help handle such disasters at home or abroad: the Marine Corps' Chemical Biological Incidence Response Team and the Army's Technical Escort Unit.

NTC Yet officials acknowledge that with their few hundred personnel, these teams would be stretched thin in the event of a major disaster.

Some experts also argue that the United States needs to improve its on-the-ground spying to find out which nations are preparing germ arsenals -- something spy satellites can't do well.

In addition, troops need more training in reacting to battlefield germ warfare attacks. "It takes time to integrate it into battlefield use," said Zachary Selden, an analyst with Business Executives for National Security, a private group in Washington.

Unlike chemical weapons, germ agents can take several days to sicken victims: The incubation period for anthrax, for example, is 72 hours. As a result, the first sign that an attack has occurred might be a huge surge of patients showing up in hospital emergency rooms.

At that point, authorities will be able to protect some people with antidotes, but many others will already be sick.

A number of experts have suggested setting up detectors at likely attack sites, such as subways, to give quick warning of attacks.

But officials in some cities strongly oppose the idea, questioning the use of tax dollars for expensive sensors.

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