Few things elicit more fear than being attacked by something unseen or unknown. This is precisely why a bioterrorist attack is a likely scenario and one that requires some of the most advanced preparation.
A bioterrorist event is not a fictional scenario, it is a reality that has been carried out in the recent past with the anthrax letter attacks in America and Japan’s Aum Shinrikyo Cult’s unsuccessful attacks with aerosolized anthrax and aerosolized botulin toxin. In fact U.S. intelligence warns of a pending attack within the next few years. Not only can a bioterrorist attack cause mass casualties as infected carriers unknowingly transmit the pathogen amongst the population, but it can cause wide-spread public panic that overwhelms public resources as people become fearful over the potential of having already been exposed or being exposed.
The economic impact can be considerable — from lost productivity from employees calling in sick, loss of tourism, and facility closures and decontamination. The National Planning Scenario for an aerosolized anthrax attack estimates such an attack would cost billions of dollars and could lead to an economic downturn due to loss of consumer confidence.
Unlike a chemical, nuclear, or an explosive event, there is no immediate and clear indication that one has been attacked using a biological weapon. Even chemical weapons leave traces from obnoxious odors, burning sensations, or difficulty breathing. A biological attack can be termed a “silent” attack and will be carried out by aerosolizing agents, tampering with food as was the case in the Rashaseen attacks on salad bars in Oregon in 1986, distributing pathogens in water, or via the mail system — all without detection.
In the absence of a visual indicator, such as a powder accompanied by a credible threat, detection of a biological attack can take days, weeks, months, or even years and it can be very difficult to catch the perpetuators.
What will a “silent” biological attack look like? According to the National Planning Scenario for an aerosolized anthrax attack, most likely there will not be a dramatic incident that can easily be pinpointed as the time of infection. What will happen is that sick people will begin presenting themselves to hospitals emergency rooms (ERs) within about 36 hours post-release of the bioterrorism pathogen. Most likely, the first victims will be misdiagnosed since initial symptoms closely resemble flu symptoms. Once multiple victims present themselves to ERs with advanced symptoms, epidemiologists will be able to declare a contagious disease emergency and activate the response network. At least a week will have passed before detection.
Quicker detection is key to minimizing the impact and saving lives with a bioterrorism attack. A few quicker detection methods (less than two days) can be employed. One biosurveillance method is to continually monitor air in strategic locations for the presence of biological particles. Once characterized biological particles have been detected then a trigger initiates the collection of air samples for identification and determination whether a bioterrorism pathogen has been released.
Current air surveillance technologies will identify an attack in one to two days. Other methods are utilized to identify powders. Visible powder threats, so-called white powder threats, can be identified within hours using new, sensitive field instruments deployed by first responders such as Hazmat, firemen or police.
Biosurveillance and field assessments are valuable tools for early detection of a biological attack because first responders will be first on the scene and will be responsible for managing the initial stages of the event. While field teams are wait for the Laboratory Response Network (LRN) to complete confirmatory testing, they are responsible for scene management such as quarantine and decontamination of victims and organizing potential response reactions based on the initial credibility of the threat. Therefore, it is imperative that first responders have the best tools available to them to properly manage the incident and save lives. Fortunately, the United States continues to fund such programs so that we, as a nation, can reach an adequate preparedness level.
Lou Banks is the BioDefense Marketing Manager at Idaho Technology. Idaho Technology leads in the development of sensitive and reliable BioTerrorism detection and identification instruments.