Biochemical threat overblown

Armstrong Williams

10/9/2001 12:00:00 AM - Armstrong Williams
Recently, I read a passage depicting one of Osama bin Laden's youth training camps in Afghanistan. The report conveyed how religious zealots whipped the children into an anti-American fervor. Hatred of the United States poured from the teacher's mouth, as his audience took to chanting and hollering for more blood to be spilled. At one point, a child held up a picture of the Sears Tower and proclaimed, "this one is mine." We read these stories, and we wonder what new blight will befall us. Nostradamus has become the most downloaded search term on the Internet. At the water cooler, in restaurants, at the bank, people brood on the possibility of a biological or chemical ambush. A Sept. 16 headline in the New York Post proclaimed, "Experts Fear Chemical Attacks." The article reported that "Master international terrorist Osama bin Laden might try to use deadly chemical or biological weapons in a future attack, according to worried U.S. officials." Soon thereafter, there was a run on gas masks in New York. In recent conversations, however, experts tell me that fears of a massive chemical or biological assault are overblown. "Most of the chemical toxins are extremely difficult to make, store and dispense in the large quantities necessary to inflict massive loss of life," explained a medical expert. For example, the Sarin gas released in a Tokyo subway by the Aum Shiniri Kyo cult in 1995 killed 12 people. The deadly nerve agent was dispersed through an aerosol spray, which could cover only a small area. Even if terrorists were to steal crop dusters, experts say that it's unclear whether they could manufacture enough of these chemicals to spray over a large enough area to do significant harm. "The dispersion through wind alone would greatly reduce the effect of the chemicals. There could certainly be loss of life, but not mass destruction," said an intelligence source. The two most commonly discussed biological threats are smallpox (a virus) and Anthrax (bacterium). There has not been a reported case of smallpox since 1977, following a 12-year campaign by the World Health Organization to completely eradicate the disease. Since mandatory inoculation against the virus ceased in 1970, however, there is currently no vaccine available to treat smallpox. Presently, the only known supplies of the virus are locked away in U.S. and Russian laboratories. Anthrax, which is a bacterium, can be treated with antibiotics such as Penicillin, Doxycyclin and Cipro. Cirpo, 750 milligrams given twice daily, seems to be the oral antibiotic of choice. There is significant doubt about the ability of a terrorist group to spread Anthrax over a large area because of the amount needed and the strong likelihood that anyone dispersing the bacteria would die. That said, limited attacks with biological and chemical agents could be employed as catalysts for broader social and economic panic. While not causing mass destruction on par with the Sept. 11 attacks, biological or chemical assaults could leave the public disconnected, displaced and confused. This is the real terror: that fears of mass destruction via biological and chemical assault, however overblown, could nonetheless manage to paralyze the nation. For this reason, we must carry on in spite of fear. In the wake of these horrible attacks, we must resolve not to fear life.