U.S. Agriculture Vulnerable to Biological
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
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
"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
"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
"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
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,"