Toxins seen as threat to U.S. troops

Forces called unprepared if Hussein unleashes biological attack in war

January 09, 2003|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The U.S. military is ill prepared to defend its troops against a lethal toxin that is thought to be part of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's biological arsenal, a top military officer said yesterday.

Col. Erik Henchal, commander of the U.S. Army's Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, at Fort Detrick, Md., told reporters that the Pentagon has few vaccines or treatments for botulinum toxin, a deadly poison that Hussein, after the 1991 Persian Gulf war, admitted making by the thousands of gallons and placing in warheads.

"I think it's very serious," said Henchal, noting that the Army lab has developed treatments for botulinum but has not had the money for full-scale production. "We haven't had enough funding ... in the last 12 years since the gulf war to effectively and efficiently make some of these new therapeutics and vaccines that we need."

Henchal also said the potency of the limited number of doses of vaccine for botulinum toxin in the Pentagon's inventory is starting to decline. "We've been fairly helpless, except to say we hope someone's paying attention to this problem, and please help us," he said.

A defense official, who asked not to be named, said he could not address Henchal's specific comments. But he said vaccines are only one method of dealing with biological agents. Others include protective gear, intelligence about the location of such agents and an attack on the suspected weapons site.

On a related matter, Henchal said that Army troops from Fort Detrick and Aberdeen Proving Ground would begin deploying this week to the Persian Gulf region with a mobile biological-testing unit that would help detect an attack on U.S. forces.

Botulinum is a spore-forming bacteria found worldwide in soil that affects the nervous system. Symptoms from the resulting botulism include droopy eyelids and dilated pupils before the muscles of the body go limp and death results from respiratory failure.

Iraq admitted after the gulf war making 5,300 gallons of botulinum toxin and putting some of it in weapons. Five warheads dating to that period and filled with botulinum are missing, according to U.S. government reports.

U.N. weapons inspectors continue to search for Hussein's biological arms and other weapons of mass destruction. Iraq has denied that it has anymore weapons of mass destruction, although U.S. and British officials dismiss those statements.

Military officers and defense analysts say one of their great fears in the event of war with Iraq is that Hussein will unleash a chemical or biological attack against U.S. troops. Khidhir Hamza, a former scientist in Hussein's nuclear weapons program who defected in the mid-1990s, has said that during the gulf war the Iraqi leader planned to launch missiles full of chemical and biological agents if allied forces reached Baghdad.

Henchal said the greatest threat in Iraq continues to be anthrax, one of the most durable bacteria and among the easiest to weaponize. But the U.S. military has vaccinated hundreds of thousands of troops against anthrax and is expected to also provide shots against the smallpox virus, which Henchal said Hussein is believed to have in his biological-weapons inventory.

But because troops have been vaccinated, Hussein might be reluctant to use a missile, artillery shell or aircraft to spread anthrax, Henchal said.

David R. Franz, who commanded the Army medical lab at Fort Detrick from 1995 to 1998, agreed that little money was available to produce enough vaccines and antidotes for botulinum toxins for U.S. forces. "We don't have enough to treat thousands of troops," he said.

During the gulf war, the short supplies of botulinum toxin vaccine meant that only those believed to be at greatest risk of exposure - some 8,000 troops - were given the shots.

Without a vaccine or antidote, those infected by botulinum could survive if they have access to a ventilator, although that would be impractical in a combat zone, said Franz. Gas masks, which are provided to each soldier, could also be used as an effective defense against the toxin, he said.

Franz said he worries more about weaponized anthrax than botulinum. Anthrax spores can easily be spread over a wide area and be inhaled by troops, the surest route to infection. Tests have shown that enough anthrax to fill two sugar packets could drift over 250 kilometers in optimum conditions, said Franz, while the same amount of botulinum would travel only a half-kilometer.

"[Botulinum] is just not a very good weapon for inhalation," said Franz, noting that the toxin is more deadly when injected.

David Siegrist, director of studies for countering biological terrorism at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, said that if Iraq has thousands of liters of botulinum toxin, "it could be a major problem for U.S. forces."

The limited amount of vaccine for botulinum toxin reflects the lack of preparedness for chemical and biological warfare, said Siegrist. There is also a lack of vaccine or treatment for plague, the brain inflammation called encephalitis and bacterial poisons known as staphylococcal enterotoxins, Henchal told reporters.

"I'm concerned in general about the lack of vaccines for the military, including botulinum toxin," said Siegrist.

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