By Manuel Cereijo


Before the fatidic day of September 11th, once a year a select group of scientists and engineers gathers at Dugway Proving Ground, a salt flat in the Utah desert 65 Kms from the nearest traffic light. They are there by invitation of the U.S. Defense Department's Joint Program Office for Biological Defenseto compete in an unsual showdown: to field test their systems for detecting biological warfare agents.

This is no idle contest; this is serious business, critical to national security. Shortly before the trial gets under way, the competitors make final adjustments to their devices and then retire to trailers nearly a kilometer away. Moments later, an aerosol cloud containing spores of Bacillus globigii is released into the air about 90 meters from the devices. This harmless bacterium simulates a real bioagent such as Bacillus anthracis, the germ that causes anthrax.

These devices are designed to determine the type and concentration of the agent within minutes, enough time to let soldiers on the battlefield don protective gear. At the trial's conclusion, the biodetectors are rated on how well and how quickly they identified the surrogate agent, as well as their ruggedness, power consumption, weight, size, reliability, and safety.

In wargames of a fictitional attack on Oklahoma City, it was predicted that an infectious agent such as smallpox could spread to three million people throughout the continental United States within 12 weeks of an attack. However, fabricating devices to disperse biological agents is not trivial. Typically, one needs to create an aerosol cloud containing just the right particle size-1-5 microns is the most lethal when inhalated.

What's more, some agents are quite fragile and die quickly in sunlight; others, though, are more robust. Efforts in the former Soviet Union, Iraq, Cuba succeeded in generating vast quantities of plague and anthrax agents, as well as the means to deliver them-by aircraft equipped with spray tanks, cluster bombs, and missiles with multiple warheads.

In short, it is far easier to make a biological weapon than to create an effective system of defense.

Much like the horrific leveling of the World Trade Center last month, a bioterrorist attack will probably come unannounced. Unlike the all-too-visible collapse of the twin towers, though, a bioattack could take days or weeks to surface, until enough illness and deaths have occurred for public health officials to realize what has happened.

Countermeasures against bioterrorism are presently limited to stockpiling vaccine an antibiotics, as well as educating health care workers to recognize infested individuals. We should increase our efforts in the development of biodetector technology, so that one day they could be adapted into smoke alarm-like units for placement in subways, office complexes, and other public sites. In my opinion, present technology is not enough.

We need to achieve detectors to obtain fast, reliable, and portable devices. Present detectors under development fall into three broad classes:

· Biochemical systems, which detect a DNA sequence or protein unique to the bioagent

· Biological tissue-based systems

· Chemical mass spectrometry systems



Manuel Cereijo

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Éste y otros excelentes artículos del mismo AUTOR aparecen en la REVISTA GUARACABUYA con dirección electrónica de: