Biological terrorism remains a threat

Shortly after terrorists struck the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, the search for Osama bin Laden led to the Tora Bora cave complex in eastern Afghanistan.

While bin Laden wasn't found there, some revealing notes were.

The scribbled notes showed al-Qaida was considering using rinderpest — a devastating viral animal disease — as a part of a terrorist plot, said Juergen Richt, a zoonotic disease expert at Kansas State University who advises the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on threats to the agriculture supply chain.

Although there is some disagreement among experts on what this week's killing of bin Laden means to the effectiveness of al-Qaida, there is general agreement that terrorism will continue.

Airline tickets will still be assessed a $2.50-per-flight fee to help bankroll those airport security workers who make you take off your shoes. Laws that turned banks into financial cops will stay in place.

And it will be necessary to remain vigilant against a biological terror attack on the U.S. food supply.

"Experts in the field warn, this threat is not an 'if' but a 'when,' " Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who formerly chaired the Senate Intelligence Committee, said recently at an international symposium on agroterrorism. "The effects of such an attack would be devastating."

Richt is one of those experts. A veterinary microbiologist, he heads up Homeland Security's zoonotic and animal disease defense center at KSU — one of two in the country. Zoonotic diseases can spread from animals to humans and vice versa.

K-State's campus in Manhattan will also be the site of the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility. The $450-million facility, which will replace the nearly 60-year-old lab on Plum Island, N.Y., is expected to be completed between 2018 and 2020.

Kansas has to pay particularly close attention to those diseases, since its wide agriculture base helps feed the world.

"There are people who want to hurt us," Richt said. "Not only us as people, but also our economy."

That's apparently what al-Qaida was planning with those notes on rinderpest.

Rinderpest, which can affect cattle, is actually an eradicated disease. The last confirmed case was in 2001. But that doesn't make it any less of a threat, if those intent on using it are determined to find a way.

There are thought to be samples of rinderpest in Africa, probably stored in freezers.

"We would be stupid to believe nothing is left," he said.

And even if there wasn't, re-creating the disease in a test tube isn't a problem with modern technology. It's just a matter of getting the right information and synthesizing it, Richt said.

"The guys in Afghanistan might not have the sophistication," Richt said, "but you can buy a lot of sophistication.

"And if I want to be a bad person, I can make it worse by playing around with it."

Opportunity to infect

Foot-and-mouth disease, which affects cloven-hoofed animals such as cattle, is a leading concern for use in agroterrorism. Neither rinderpest nor foot-and-mouth can be caught by people, but both could wreak havoc on the food supply and economy.

In the United States, if one animal in a herd is determined to have foot-and-mouth, the whole herd must be destroyed as well as animals within a several-mile radius.

Unlike rinderpest, foot-and-mouth is very much alive with current outbreaks in South Korea and North Korea, China, Bulgaria and Turkey, Richt said.

Such diseases could infect the food chain by natural means as well as through terrorists.

"It's just as likely that it could come back to the U.S. on Grandma's shoe," said Jerry Jaax, K-State's associate vice president for research and compliance, who has dealt with these diseases for decades.

Whether intentional or not, there is plenty of opportunity to infect the food supply. A pound of meat — whether beef, chicken or pork — usually travels about 1,000 miles from farm to fork, Richt said.

"Our agricultural supply chain . . . is under threat because of our remarkable mobility that permits animals, people, food, diseases and even terrorists to move around the world with impunity," Richt said.

He said it was important that the nation invest in its veterinary schools the way it does medical schools in order to expand expertise in dealing with the diseases that infect animals. That would help link human and veterinary medicine to solve a common problem.

"Veterinarians also protect public health," Richt said.

Animal ID system

The unpredictability of emerging diseases also makes it important for this country to have an effective system of animal identification so a sick animal can be quickly traced back to the source, Richt said.

Animal identification has been a controversial topic for some time. Many producers have long resisted it because they thought it was too costly and invaded their privacy.

The federal government spent $142 million developing a plan that called for electronically identifying each animal and a system to track an animal from birth to slaughter.

Only 36 percent of the producers participated in it nationally and only 22 percent from Kansas took part. The plan has since been dropped.

In February 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture began introducing a more-flexible program. It is supposed to follow a similar path as the old one, except it is voluntary. Critics noted that if producers weren't going to take part in a mandatory plan, they won't participate in a voluntary program.

In any case, that plan is still "evolving, nothing has been finalized," said Terry Holdren, Kansas Farm Bureau's national director of government relations.

Richt noted that there have been numerous outbreaks of infectious diseases over the past two decades, each costing the host country at least $350 million.

In the case of the severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, it cost China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Canada and other nations about $50 billion total, he said.

"I know there's a lot of resistance to an ID system," Richt said. "But if we don't have one in place, it will cost much more money if we have one of those emergencies."