Friday, April 02, 2010

Urban Bioterrorism

On March 16, 2010, the Union League Club hosted a forum entitled: Biological Terrorism: Is America Prepared? as part of their Breakfast @ 65 West series. The discussion was lead by Professor Barry Kellman and Major General (Retired) Charles E. Tucker. Kellman is currently the director of the International Weapons Control Center at the DePaul University College of Law, while Tucker is the executive director of the International Human Rights Law Institute.

Kellman opened the discussion by exclaiming “I’m a terrorist!” and held up a pill bottle full of white powder. He then claimed that the bottle was full of anthrax and that he would be able to kill thousands of people simply by releasing the small amount of powder in a public arena. After full disclosure that the powder was really just that, powered sugar, he told the crowd that he has carried that bottle of sugar, which looks identical to anthrax under an airport security scanner, through numerous airports including O’Hare and has never once been stopped.

Kellman then went on to talk about many of the issues surrounding bioterrorism from terrorist acquisition of biological weapons to medical response systems. Although noting that “Chicago is one of the best prepared cities in the world,” Kellman also explained that first responders are still unprepared for multi-attack situations and on how to stop the perpetrators once a biological attack has begun.

When asked by an audience member how best to identify potential terrorists. Kellman and Tucker both acknowledged the importance of an intelligence gathering community that works together and shares vital information- such as when potential biological weapons go missing from labs. Kellman also went on to say that it’s not a good idea to start “witch-hunts” and that it would be the “wrong strategy to bar non-Americans from [U.S.] labs.”

The goal of the program was not only to educate, but to also recruit people to get involved in research and in creating recommendations for bioterrorism preparedness that can be given to cities throughout the world. It can take from 48 hours up to a week after a bioterrorism attack to really understand what it going on depending on the agent used and the symptoms people are presenting to medical authorities. The better prepared cities are, the quicker they can care for the sick, contain the situation, and prevent any further spread. Although Kellman argues that a biological attack is “not the most likely,” he does believe that “this is the greatest security threat we face.”

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