A Plague on All Your Houses

Denver readies itself for a bio-bomb but is the federal program behind this exercise a dud?

Once on the scene, the RAID team helps determine the type of agent that has been released, using some of the latest technology. "We have a sophisticated communication capability that takes data from the field from a gas chromatograph mass spectrometer (GCMS), and it takes that data or images and starts sending those in real time over a satellite to experts in D.C.," Petty says. The GCMS breaks down chemical components into parts, comparing them with similar known agents.

The test works for nerve agents, but not biological weapons. For identifying viruses, the RAID team has a handheld re-agent ticket, which changes color depending on the type of agent present. "It's like an early pregnancy test for biological weapons," Petty jokes. "We've got all kinds of special toys. The idea is, because this is such a specialized niche on the high end of the threat spectrum, we can't afford to equip every firefighter."

Nonetheless, eighteen Denver paramedics have already received training in responding to chemical weapon attacks, and federal grants have allowed those paramedics, as well as some firefighters, to purchase "Level B" containment suits that include self-contained breathing apparatus and would allow rescue workers to enter a "warm zone," where the threat of biological contamination is less severe. At present, only the RAID team is equipped with Level A germ-proof suits, which allow them to enter a hot zone where biological agents are present and still potent.

"It's hard to second-guess what the bad guys are going to do because there's such a range available to them," Petty says. A bioterrorist weapon could range from what he describes as a "onesy-twosey device," such as Ted Kaczynski's letter bombs, to the release of a biological agent over a big city.

The TOPOFF exercise is all about "fighting some sexy thing," says Art Davidson, an epidemiologist and director of Denver's public-health informatics program. "But it will help us get ready to deal with devastating diseases as well. That's something we hope will come out of it. And maybe not even for severe events, but to help us with a salmonella outbreak, for example.

"Basically, the government has cut back public-health funding over the last decade or so, and the world has moved ahead," Davidson continues. "Every time there's a victory in public health, when we reduce the occurrence of a disease -- TB or AIDS -- it seems like there's a reduction in funding. And some places have paid dearly for that. In the early '90s, New York was hard hit by multi-drug-resistant TB because the program had been dismantled. Then we have to build up the programs again."

On that point, even Surgeon General David Satcher agrees. "We've got to have the basic health infrastructure, even before we start to worry about bioterrorism," he said last year. "We've allowed our public-health infrastructure to deteriorate." If a bioterrorist attack were to occur, he pointed out, there might not be enough epidemiologists capable of detecting an outbreak, much less enough hospital beds and vaccines for the victims.

Preparing for a bioterrorist attack is "one way to bring back some funding to public health," Davidson says. "Getting the public-health infrastructure up to speed is just as important as getting ready for the next anthrax threat. I don't want to make less of a bioterrorism threat, but I'm looking at it with some optimism -- something positive for public health will come out of it."

Petty takes a much dimmer view. He has no doubt that someday, somewhere, someone will deploy a biological weapon. "Man's never made a weapon that he's failed to use, as far as I know," he says.

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