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Terror Detector (video)
August 30, 2002

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Interviewee: Stephen Morse, Center for Public Health Preparedness.

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Produced by Brad Kloza

Copyright © ScienCentral, Inc., with additional footage from the United States Postal Service, Cepheid, and ABC.

Also on ScienCentral News

Exploding Anthrax (video) - There’s a new weapon in the war against anthrax, and it can can both detect it quickly and kill it. (8/21/02)

Caught on Tape (video) - FBI agents now have NASA technology that can enhance even a glimpse of a suspect caught on tape. (9/20/01)

Elsewhere on the web

USPS Emergency Preparedness Plan

Biological Warfare Canaries - IEEE Spectrum

"Dark Winter" Biological Warfare Exercise - June 2001

Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies - includes bioweapons agent fact sheets.

"Biological and Chemical Terrorism: Strategic Plan for Preparedness and Response" - CDC

The post office is in the final stages of a detection system that would alert them to the presence of biological agents like anthrax in mail.

But as this ScienCentral News video reports, nearly a year after the attacks we still have a long way to go for that perfect detector.

Preparation as important as detection

In the 19th century, inhalation anthrax was referred to as "wool sorters’ disease" because people working in wooling mills often inhaled anthrax spores that were contaminating the wool. That doesn’t happen very much anymore. But after last year’s anthrax attacks, Stephen Morse, epidemiology professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and director of the Center for Public Health Preparedness, says he has a colleague who now calls it "mail sorters’ disease."

That’s because postal workers were unfortunate secondary victims of last year’s mail attacks. It is also why the US Postal Service will install bioagent detectors in all of its 282 mail processing centers.

While he says it’s a good idea, Morse also cautions that we need to temper our expectations for such devices.

"The reality is they’re not going to be everywhere, they may not detect everything we need to detect," he says. "And so in many cases, I think the first sign of a bioterrorist attack will be sick people showing up at their doctor’s office or clinics or emergency rooms, just as we saw with these anthrax attacks last fall."

Morse drives this point home in an article that will be published in the October issue of Scientific American. He argues that detectors are limited for several reasons: They have not been tested in real world environments; you need to know what to look for (there is no all-purpose detector and there "will not be one for quite a few years down the road"); and even if you had the "perfect detector" it’s unrealistic to expect them to be everywhere.

For these reasons, he says, it’s likely that with any bioterrorist attack a strong public health system is going to be our "front line of defense." In other words, we need to respond to terror attacks much in the same way we have responded to disease outbreaks, like West Nile Virus.

Snake oil salesmen

Although we are still years away from the so-called "biological smoke detector," Morse says research and development efforts have been stepped up to a large degree since last fall’s mail attacks. And he cautions against being taken in by those trying to sell detectors to people or companies who don’t really need them, and might not end up using them properly.

While some of these devices are very sophisticated and valuable when used by the right person, "on the opposite end we obviously have the snake oil salesmen—increasing in number since 9-11 for all the obvious reasons—promising detectors that’ll do everything, and give you perfect answers, and just wake you up when something happens so you don’t have to worry in the meantime," Morse says. "And of course as the old cliché goes, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true."

The government seems to agree. In July the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy asked all federal mail managers not to purchase any commercially available biological detectors. Such detectors "did not pass acceptable standards for effectiveness," and using them "would be equivalent to flipping a coin, unfortunately," said Charles Schable, deputy director of the CDC Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Program.

by Brad Kloza

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