Science Races to Meet Bioterror Threat

From the WebMD Archives

Oct. 4, 2001 -- America's sense of safety collapsed along with the World Trade Center Towers. It won't be back. But new advances promise a defense against one of our most troubling new insecurities -- the threat of bioterror attack.

Newspapers, magazines, and Internet web sites warn us that terrible diseases can now be used as weapons. Experts fear three of these diseases above all others: anthrax, smallpox, and plague. Ongoing work to fight all three of these threats is getting new attention in the wake of the Sept. 11 events.

Harvard microbiologist R. John Collier, PhD, has been working with anthrax for 15 years. His work has led to an exciting new idea for an antidote to anthrax toxin. The idea is to create a bogus piece of the toxin -- a mutant form of the piece of anthrax used in the current anthrax vaccine -- that would throw a monkey wrench into the toxin's lethal machinery. The antitoxin saves the lives of animals injected with an otherwise lethal dose of anthrax toxin. Because it closely resembles the vaccine, the new compound promises not just a treatment for people infected with anthrax but also protection against future anthrax infection.

And that's not all. Collier's team this week reported that they have developed a second antitoxin that deactivates anthrax toxin.

"These findings have got us pretty excited about the possibility we may actually make a significant contribution to therapy or prevention of anthrax," Collier tells WebMD. "We are pursuing these compounds on the assumption that it would be a good idea -- if they prove effective -- to have them stockpiled at major centers around the country. There is greatly increased interest since September 11. I think the government now is going to throw money at this."

Even though his work is having a direct effect on bioterror defense, Collier isn't particularly worried about an anthrax attack.

"We don't really have a good handle on the level of risk, but my general feeling is it is low," Collier says. "A group has to be pretty sophisticated -- and pretty lucky -- to get anthrax spores in fine enough particle size to reach the lung, and also to be able to disperse it in an effective aerosol form. You have to be very lucky to do that. But we have all read the scenarios of a crop duster going over a stadium or a city, and that could be really devastating."


So is he buying gas masks or vaccinating his family?

"I've taken no particular precautions for me and my family," Collier says. "I have done nothing because I think the risk is so low that at this point you create more damage by overreacting."

Indeed, the gas masks that people now rush to buy can be dangerous if used improperly -- or if played with by curious children. Stockpiling antibiotics seems like a good idea -- but the very real risk of improper use of these drugs far outweighs the risk of a terrorist attack. And it's debatable whether either of these measures would even help.

Bioterror experts tell WebMD that over the next few years, the most effective defense against bioterror would be to improve the public health system. They point to three important improvements: building up the ability of hospitals to handle a large number of new patients; training healthcare workers to recognize the subtle symptoms of bioterror diseases; and revving up the speed at which laboratories can identify the type of germ infecting a patient.

Smallpox may or may not be available to terrorists -- but the disease is so awful and so easily spread that the threat is taken very seriously. The U.S. now has very little smallpox vaccine on hand, but new supplies are being made -- and so far, they are ahead of schedule. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson says the vaccine will be ready by mid- to late 2002.

Plague, a far easier germ for terrorists to get their hands on, also is yielding its secrets. A team of scientists recently announced that they now have a genetic map of the germ that caused the Black Death in the middle ages. The new information won't help terrorists use the germ as a weapon. It will, however, soon lead to new treatments and vaccines.

WebMD Health News Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD
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