WASHINGTON – The United States is vulnerable to agricultural bioterrorism and needs a comprehensive plan to defend against it.
A new report from the National Academies’ National Research Council writes the United States cannot rapidly detect and identify many pests and pathogens and could not quickly respond to a large-scale attack, which would overwhelm existing laboratory and field resources.
Major threat. “Biological agents that could be used to harm crops or livestock are widely available and pose a major threat to U.S. agriculture,” said Harley W. Moon, chair of the committee that wrote the report, and professor of veterinary medicine, Iowa State University, Ames.
“Part of the plan to defend against agricultural bioterrorism should be to enhance our basic understanding of the biology of pests and pathogens so we can develop new tools for surveillance and new ways to control an outbreak.”
Pre-9/11 concern. The committee began its study at the request of the U.S. Department of Agriculture prior to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Those acts and the subsequent anthrax attacks – which showed that “bioterrorism is now a reality,” as the report puts it – heightened concerns about an attack on U.S. agriculture.
The report says that while a bioterrorism attack on U.S. agriculture is highly unlikely to result in famine or malnutrition, it could harm people, disrupt the economy, and cause widespread public concern and confusion.
The recent outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease that arose naturally in the United Kingdom, for example, led to the destruction of millions of animals and cost billions of dollars.
Already in action. Given the importance of this report to homeland defense, the National Academies took the unusual step of briefing the Office of Homeland Security and USDA earlier this year on the report’s preliminary findings and conclusions. The report also was submitted to USDA and the Office of Homeland Security for a classification review.
Because the government has been aware of the report’s main recommendations for several months, it is possible that authorities have already taken some steps to act on them.
Highly sensitive. At its own discretion, the National Academies decided to remove certain detailed and specific information from the report. An appendix of the material that was removed is not for distribution to the general public.
Although USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has several emergency plans for dealing with the unintentional introduction of plant and animal pests and pathogens, the committee could not find, as of last spring, any publicly available in-depth national plan to defend against the intentional introduction of biological agents in an act of terror.
The committee also said that significant gaps exist in U.S. knowledge about foreign pests and pathogens.
A comprehensive plan to counter agricultural bioterrorism should define the role each federal and state agency will play in preventing and responding to an attack and how they will cooperate with one another, the report says.
The agencies involved also should develop a consensus list of biological agents that could potentially be used in an attack. The agencies should further agree to a shorter list of agents – representative of various types of agents and the plant or animal species they would target – for which preparations can be made.
The report recommends building upon USDA’s current emergency plans for coping with unintentional introduction of pests and pathogens, but emphasizes that the new plan must be designed specifically for terrorist threats.
As part of the plan, the committee recommends the United States create a network of laboratories to coordinate the detection of bioterror agents in the event of an attack. USDA appears to have budgeted for such a network in the next fiscal year, the committee said.
A nationwide agricultural bioterrorism communication system, modeled after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “Health Alert Network,” also is necessary.
The report was already in final stages of preparation when President Bush called for transferring the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to the proposed Department of Homeland Security, so the committee did not analyze the significance of such a move.
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