American Forces Press Service

Conference Targets Major Military Enemy: Biology


  By Douglas J. Gillert
 American Forces Press Service

 FORT DETRICK, Md. -- Few American military physicians have seen 
 one of medicine's -- and the military's -- most treacherous 
 enemies: anthrax. To learn about the deadly biological agent, 
 they rely, instead, on textbooks and reports from foreign 
 countries that have experienced anthrax attacks.
 And attack it does, swiftly, horribly and often lethally, 
 according to Army Dr. (Col.) Arthur Friedlander. In minute, 
 graphic detail, he described the biological agent that 
 historically attacks domesticated animals but now poses a threat 
 to humans as a lethal new weapon.
 How deadly anthrax can be was demonstrated in 1979 when a 
 laboratory producing the agent blew up in Sverdlovsk, Russia. At 
 the time, Soviet Union leaders denied that the subsequent 42 
 deaths attributed to the explosion were caused by anthrax, 
 claiming instead that tainted meat caused the fatalities and 
 hundreds of reported cases of sickness. It wasn't until 1993 
 that press reports from the former Soviet Union substantiated 
 earlier claims than anthrax was, indeed, the culprit. 
 The fatalities would have been much higher in a more heavily 
 populated area, Friedlander said. "The same release over 
 Washington could cause an estimated 2 to 3 million fatalities," 
 he said.
 What most concerns military planners and medical experts today 
 is how easily many biological and chemical agents can be 
 concealed and brought unsuspectingly into communities and on or 
 near military installations -- how easily the agents can be made 
 into weapons of mass destruction.
 Friedlander, senior military research scientist at the Army 
 Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases on post, 
 raised the specter of such a debacle to physicians attending the 
 first annual joint conference for biological vaccines here May 
 25-27. In great medical detail, he dissected the disease and 
 told how, in its aerosol form, anthrax can cover wide areas and 
 attack large populations quickly and fatally. 
 Much of the conference dealt with the anthrax vaccine Defense 
 Secretary William S. Cohen ordered all service members to get. 
 But the military physicians also discussed other biological and 
 chemical threats and what's being done to counteract them. Some 
 of those biological others include Q fever, smallpox, tularemia, 
 encephalitis, botulism, plague and hemorrhagic fevers.
 Dr. Richard Kenyon, project manager for the Joint Vaccine 
 Acquisition Program, said it would take more than 10 years for 
 DoD contractors to develop and stockpile new vaccines. Key to 
 developing a new vaccine is FDA licensure, he said. 
 "We have to integrate the acquisition process with FDA 
 requirements, then demonstrate that we're able to provide 
 protection against aerosol exposure to biological warfare 
 agents," he said. Drawbacks include limited commercial interest 
 in developing the relative small amounts of vaccine the military 
 requires and the inability to test experimental vaccines on 
 Civilian governments concerned about domestic terrorism also may 
 have needs different from the military, Kenyon said. "We don't 
 want competition for manufacturers between DoD and civilian 
 response agencies," he said. 
 Meanwhile, DoD is helping U.S. cities train and prepare for 
 potential terrorist attacks involving chemical and biological 
 agents and would be a key participant in any emergency response. 
 Dr. Thomas Inglesby, an assistant professor of infectious 
 diseases at Johns Hopkins University, said DoD involvement in 
 ongoing medical research also is important and instrumental to 
 helping cities prepare for such an emergency. He said the Fort 
 Detrick institute is the most important component of ongoing 
 research and development of effective defenses and treatment.
 The physicians attending the conference didn't leave with as 
 many answers as they did challenges and new reasons to be 
 concerned about troop health on the battlefield. What they 
 learned is that preparing for acts of terrorism in general is 
 one thing, preparing for biological and chemical terrorism quite 
 another. From what Friedlander, Inglesby and others told them, 
 they face a fierce enemy.