September 15, 2002


 Bioterrorism expert says U.S. agriculture vulnerable to attack

Posted Sept. 1, 2002

When Dr. Donald L. Noah talked about bioterrorism at the AVMA Annual Convention last year in Boston, it was a different world. Because of Sept. 11, the nation is acutely aware that its enemies will go to any length, using any method available, including biologic agents, to strike at the United States.

Moreover, in the weeks following the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, anthrax-laced letters mailed to political leaders and media outlets resulted in a handful of deaths, revealing that such biologic terrorism has moved out of the realm of the theoretic.

cowsDr. Noah, an Air Force lieutenant colonel working for the under secretary of defense for policy, spoke July 16 at the AVMA Annual Convention in Nashville about agricultural bioterrorism, as part of a series of lectures on foreign animal diseases.

Although the anthrax attacks revealed the flaws in our emergency response system, which comprises a complex nexus of public health, intelligence, and disaster response agencies, the attack was identified quickly and the fatalities kept to a minimum. "For all the inefficiencies built into our system, it really does work," Dr. Noah said, quickly adding that improvements are still needed.

The nation's robust agriculture industry is especially vulnerable to a potentially devastating animal disease. Dr. Noah cited data revealing how porous the U.S. border is. The United States, he said, annually imports an estimated 1.9 million cattle, 700,000 swine, and 28 million birds. Approximately 4,000 pounds of meat is confiscated each month from travelers arriving from Haiti, and 100,000 birds are smuggled illegally into the United States each year. "You have to wonder how much doesn't get caught," he noted.

"Historically, we have focused on things that explode or come here at supersonic speeds, and (an infected) donkey or some other animal that crosses the border is neither of those," Dr. Noah said about the unconventional weapons that can be used in a biologic attack.

Given its economic and sociologic importance, U.S. agriculture needs to be protected, according to Dr. Noah. He listed several objectives that terrorist groups might have for targeting agriculture. These include creating skepticism about the government's ability to protect the public and maintain a safe food supply, disrupting the economy and international trade, inciting panic, and profiting from a weakened commodities market.

Terrorist motivations vary, he explained, from political and religious ideologies to the environment and animal rights. Some single-issue groups, such as the Animal Liberation Front, target research facilities that experiment on animals (see related news story).

Terrorism appeals to America's enemies because it is an effective way to strike at a superior nation. Considering the unparalleled military and technologic might of the United States, no country is willing to attack it with conventional weapons. Terrorists must instead focus on important but vulnerable targets using biologic or chemical agents instead of guns and bombs, Dr. Noah explained.

Apart from the economic fallout, an important but often overlooked component of animal disease outbreaks is the psychologic stress resulting from depopulation. Referencing the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in the United Kingdom, where the carcasses of millions of sheep, pigs, and cattle were buried in mass graves or burned in funeral pyres, Dr. Noah asked the audience to imagine the social and psychologic damage of culling five million animals in the span of six weeks in the United States.

Since Sept. 11, there is greater coordination and information sharing among agencies that, because of their differing missions, have traditionally not worked together, according to Dr. Noah. A report by the General Accounting Office about the West Nile disease outbreak in 1999 highlighted many of these deficiencies, especially how veterinary expertise is often underutilized when public health is threatened.

To further prepare for biologic terrorism, Dr. Noah recommended more government funding to continue research, stockpile animal vaccines, and specifically defend agriculture from weapons of mass destruction. Veterinarians, he said, should be familiar with epidemiology and know where to report suspected animal disease cases.

As for veterinary academia, Dr. Noah believes the schools and colleges should emphasize foreign animal diseases and zoonoses, along with food safety. Government veterinarians, he added, must encourage greater communication among the veterinary, human medical, and public health communities.