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Science - Reuters
U.S. Agriculture Vulnerable to Biological Attack
Wed Nov 20, 5:07 PM ET
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By Alan Elsner, National Correspondent

LAS VEGAS (Reuters) - The United States is virtually unprotected against a biological attack on its agricultural sector, which would have devastating economic consequences, scientists at a conference on biological warfare said on Wednesday.

Tom McGinn, assistant state veterinarian for North Carolina, outlined the results of a computer model that simulated what would happen if foot-and-mouth (news - web sites) disease were deliberately and simultaneously released in five different sites across the country.

The exercise, which was constructed at the request of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, showed that within two weeks the disease would have spread to 44 states and caused the destruction of 48.5 million animals.

"Terrorists have the organisms; they have the intention and they have the capability. We need to develop better surveillance, detection and response capabilities. We're not prepared right now and the effects of an attack would be catastrophic," McGinn told the bioterrorism conference sponsored by Harvard University School of Public Health.

"It's the perfect target and the perfect weapon," he said.

Barry Bloom, the School of Public Health dean who took part in a recent government scientific panel, which studied the nation's defenses against biological attack, said the agricultural sector was possibly the most vulnerable.

"Agricultural threats are the easiest to use at the moment. There is no need to weaponize the agents of attack and a single point introduction could lead to a major epidemic," he said.

Apart from the vulnerability of livestock to infection, scientists are also worried about the security of crops, since the United States imports a large number of seeds each year.

"Very little is being done on 'agricultural terrorism' and it is an urgent need. We really need an institution like the Centers for Disease Control to do surveillance and early detection for plants and animals," Bloom said.

McGinn said the country needed more rigorous inspections of agricultural imports and an urgent update of what he said was an antiquated system to report suspected problems.

PROCESSING PLANTS UNSECURED

Peter Chalk, a policy analyst for the RAND Corp., highlighted another vulnerability in a recent article: thousands of food processing plants where biosecurity was minimal and workforces unscreened.

"These facilities represent ideal sites for the deliberate introduction of bacteria and toxins such as salmonella, e-coli and botulin," he wrote.

McGinn said there was growing concern about the emergence of new germs that attacked both humans and animals. Enemies of the United States could easily collect samples from recent outbreaks in Asia and might try to introduce them into this country.

He said the United States had collected intelligence data last year in Afghanistan (news - web sites) that al Qaeda operatives had explored ways of damaging the U.S. food supply.

Foot-and-mouth disease, which attacks cattle but is harmless to humans, can be preserved in bacon for six months and in dried milk for up to two years and can be spread by wind up to 40 miles, making it almost impossible to contain once it has arrived in a country.

One computer simulation found that a foot-and-mouth outbreak that spread to six sites in North Carolina would require 24,634 people per day to work on containment, animal slaughter, testing, traffic control and other needs.

"Where would we get those numbers?" McGinn asked.

"Billions of dollars are being spent to respond to the threats to humans but only a couple of million for animal needs and responses," he said.


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