Honors fraternity Phi Beta Kappa invited three panelists who have dealt directly with biological agents in laboratories. The panelists suggested various forms that a biological attack on the United States could take.
"The next threat is going to be the food supply," said Robert Ryder, director of the UNC Center for Biopreparedness, as he spoke to a circle of 23 UNC and high school students.
"We as a nation eat the same food, and it is made in the same place, and it is distributed widely. People can use that, and I think they will use that."
In one scenario, Ryder suggested that someone could steal botulism toxin from a lab and pour half a cup of the toxin in an unlocked tanker truck carrying milk from a dairy farm.
That milk could then be used in making ice cream, which has nationwide distribution. People could then become ill from the toxin throughout an entire region, Ryder said.
"When would the alarm bell go off?" Ryder asked, referring to recognition of the disease. "I want to have a system in place to make that bell ring so I can pull that ice cream off the shelf."
Besides the food distribution system in this country, Ryder also spoke of global travel as an enabler that allows a biological agent to be transported.
"It would be quite easy to put some smallpox in (the Washington, D.C., subway center)," Ryder said. "The incubation period for smallpox is 12 to 14 days, and in 12 to 14 days those people are going to be all over the world."
Peter Gilligan, director of the clinical microbiology and immunology lab at UNC Hospitals, said smallpox is the potential disease weapon that he finds most troubling.
This virus is considered a Category A biological agent, one of the agents that scientists are the most concerned about, Gilligan said. This category also includes anthrax, plague and botulism.
But Gilligan expressed concern that with the fear of bioterrorism at the moment, the public is not getting complete information about diseases.
"Four people have died of anthrax," Gilligan said. "Twenty thousand are going to die from the flu this winter."
Though past attempted biological attacks in various parts of the world have been failures, Gilligan said he is concerned about lax security at the labs where smallpox is kept, as well as in labs where other dangerous agents are stored.
"We don't know if there's anthrax (in a lab) on this campus," Gilligan said, though he said his lab destroyed all organisms with the potential to be stolen and used for bioterrorism.
"It's a scary sort of situation when we have people in the world who are willing to use this kind of weapon," said Joseph Beasley, a retired ethics professor from the U.S. Military Academy. "These bugs have no respect for national borders."
Ryder, like Gilligan, expressed concern specifically about the threat of smallpox as a terrorist weapon.
"I truly think there will be an outbreak of smallpox," Ryder said. "The state has a plan (to deal with such an outbreak), and there are people who have thought a lot about this. What worries me is the reaction of people who don't know much about it."
Ryder said an outbreak is containable, but he said he is worried about people "banging down the door" to get to limited supplies of smallpox vaccine if such an outbreak occurs.
He also noted the dangers of the vaccine itself, which could be life-threatening to people with compromised immune systems. But he said the disease is much more dangerous.
Smallpox, an often deadly virus which starts with flu-like symptoms and then leads to the development of blueberry-sized pustules all over the body, is very easily transmitted, Ryder said.
"In the hour we've been here," he said, "if someone had smallpox, we'd all be infected."
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