JAN. 22–WASHINGTON, D.C.–In an effort to protect against threats of bioterrorism, the Bush Administration said today that it is planning to deploy a national system of environmental monitors that will indicate within 24 hours whether anthrax, smallpox or other deadly pathogens have been released into the air.
The system would retrofit many of the 3,000 existing environmental monitoring stations with new filters to detect biological agents, administration officials say.
”It’s part of our precautions to protect the country,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told The Associated Press.
President Bush highlighted the problem Wednesday, though officials said they knew of no imminent danger. Pitching his tax-cut plan in St. Louis, Bush acknowledged the ongoing fears from ”gathering dangers” outside the country.
”We’re still on guard here in America,” said Bush, referring to terrorism threats in general.
The new monitoring system was tested throughout 2002, including at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
Nightmare scenarios envisioned by bioterrorism experts include a small plane flying above a community, releasing anthrax or other germs over a large gathering of people. Depending on the winds, thousands of people could become ill, yet it could take days to figure out what happened.
The sooner health officials detect a bioterrorism incident, the sooner they can properly treat victims with vaccines or antibiotics and protect others who might become infected.
Monitoring systems now run by the Environmental Protection Agency will be adapted to check for a number of biological agents. The systems, which filter air, were created to measure pollutants and the quality of the air.
If a station detects something suspicious, samples would be sent to the closest of some 120 labs in the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Laboratory Response Network. Lab results would be available from 12 to 24 hours, depending on the tests conducted.
The tests involve genetic analysis using polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, techniques. They examine a germ sample’s genetic fingerprint and quickly determine what it is.
These tests are considered much more reliable than hand-held devices used by emergency responders, which often indicate the presence of a particular germ when none is there.
The new system is intended to work with existing patient surveillance systems that monitor symptoms of patients, looking for strange patterns of disease that may indicate a biological agent infecting many people at the same time.
The new Homeland Security Department is creating the new system. It will cost about $1 million to upgrade each monitoring system and an additional $1 million per city, per year, to run it, analyzing samples that are collected.