Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Something in the Air 

As we mentioned a couple of weeks ago, DHS BioWatch sensors detected trace amounts of the deadly pathogen francisella tularensis near the D.C. mall on September 24 of this year, the same day that hundreds of thousands of protesters marched past the White House in protest of the war in Iraq. Salon reports that federal agencies from Homeland Security to the CDC are still struggling to figure out exactly where the bacteria -- described by government sources as "one of six biological weapons most likely to be used against the United States" -- originated:
The biological-weapons detection system in Washington had never set off any alarms before. There are more than 150 sensors spread across 30 of the most populated cities in America. But this was the first time that six sensors in any one place had detected a toxin at the same time. The sensors are also located miles from one another, suggesting that the pathogen was airborne and probably not limited to a local environmental source.

William Stanhope, associate director for special projects at the St. Louis University School of Public Health's Institute for Biosecurity, has been closely following scattered government and news reports about the incident. He's convinced it was a botched terrorist attack. "I think we were lucky and the terrorists were not good," he says. "I am stunned that this has not been more of a story."

The DHS scrambled for three days to confirm just what may have been in the air that day. On Sept. 27, it turned for help to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC did its own tests, and on Sept. 30 -- six days after the deadly pathogens set off the sensors and well into the incubation period for tularemia -- alerted public health officials across the country to be on the lookout for tularemia, the deadly disease caused by F. tularensis.

"It is alarming that health officials ... were only notified six days after the bacteria was first detected," House Government Reform chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., wrote in an Oct. 3 letter to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. "Have DHS and CDC analysts been able to determine if the pathogen detected was naturally occurring or the result of a terrorist attack?"

Government officials say the sensors detected a natural event. "There is no known nexus to terror or criminal behavior," Russ Knocke, spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, told the Washington Post. "We believe this to be environmental." "It is not unreasonable that this is a natural occurrence," says Von Roebuck, spokesman for the CDC. "There are still no cases of tularemia" . . . .

As with anthrax, the U.S. military weaponized and stockpiled F. tularensis in the 1960s. The Soviets are said to have engineered strains to be resistant to antibiotics and vaccines. A World Health Organization Committee in 1969 estimated that dispersal of 110 pounds of F. tularensis over a city of 5 million would incapacitate 250,000 people and 19,000 of them would die.

So far, there are no signs of a tularemia outbreak in the U.S. But because it comes on like the flu, it is unclear if the government would even know if a few people from the Mall that day scattered across the United States had tularemia. The amount detected in the sensors suggests a very small amount was in the air . . . .

There was another troubling thing. One of the sensors that went off was located at the Lincoln Memorial on the far western end of the Mall. Another was located near Judiciary Square, roughly two miles to the east and two blocks north of the Mall. A third was at the Army's Fort McNair, more than two miles from the Lincoln Memorial down the Potomac River past the Mall, on the point of land where the Washington Channel and Anacostia River meet. The locations of the other three sensors have not been disclosed . . . .

"One sensor, I'd say maybe," says biosecurity expert Stanhope of the dust theory. "Two sensors is a stretch. Six sensors? I'm sorry, you don't have enough money to buy enough martinis to make me believe that it is naturally occurring at six different sites."
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