U.S. Agriculture Vulnerable to Bioterror Attack

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, September 20, 2002 (ENS) - A large scale agricultural bioterrorism attack would quickly overwhelm existing laboratory and field resources, warns a new report from the National Academies' National Research Council. The report, released Thursday, warns that the nation cannot rapidly detect and identify many pests and pathogens, and needs a comprehensive plan to defend against bioterrorism.

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.


Spores of anthrax bacteria (Photo courtesy U.S. Postal Service)
"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 Moon, chair of the 12 member committee that wrote the report, and professor of veterinary medicine at 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," Moon added.

The committee began its study at the request of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) prior to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Those acts and the subsequent anthrax attacks - which the reports argues showed that "bioterrorism is now a reality" - heightened concerns about an attack on U.S. agriculture.

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.


These Vermont sheep, imported from Belgium and the Netherlands in 1996, were found to carry scrapie, a form of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (Photo courtesy USDA)
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 National Research Council (NRC) report says.

The committee also said that significant gaps exist in U.S. knowledge about foreign pests and pathogens. The agencies involved should develop a consensus list of biological agents that could potentially be used in an attack, the report states.

The agencies also need to 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. Developing countermeasures for this subset of agents would be valuable to officials and front line personnel in the event of an attack, even if the agent ultimately confronted does not happen to be on the short list.

Besides the threats posed by well known diseases such as anthrax and mad cow, there are a host of little known pathogens that, while not as directly dangerous to humans, could devastate the U.S. economically and threaten the food supply, the report notes. The recent outbreak of foot and mouth disease that arose naturally in the United Kingdom, for example, forced the destruction of millions of animals and cost billions of dollars.


Last week, bacteria that can cause a deadly disease in pigs were stolen from a lab in Michigan. (Photo by Scott Bauer, courtesy Agricultural Research Service)
This week, the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and the National Pork Board issued a warning after a bacterium that attacks pigs was stolen from a laboratory at Michigan State University (MSU) late last week. The infectious agent, Actinobacillus pleuropneumoniae, can cause convulsions, pneumonia and rapid death in pigs. The laboratory was working with the bacteria as part of a project to develop swine vaccines.

"The bacteria are not known to cause a threat to human health," said Beth Alexander, MSU physician, after consulting with experts in infectious disease. Alexander said MSU had already tested the specific strains of bacteria used in the vaccine research and found no indication that the strains posed a threat to human health.

"Humans cannot be harmed by this," said Lonnie King, dean of MSU's College of Veterinary Medicine, "whether by direct contact with the bacteria, or by eating meat from an infected animal. This is strictly a disease that strikes pigs."

However, if the disease were to become widespread at U.S. hog farms, it could devastate the industry and the nation's pork supplies. The National Pork Board urged pork producers to review their security plans and watch for suspicious activity or people around their farms or community.

The NRC report says that the federal government should develop potential attack scenarios to help train health and agricultural professionals on how to respond to a disease outbreak. The committee recommended building upon USDA's current emergency plans for coping with the unintentional introduction of pests and pathogens, but emphasizes that the new plan must be designed specifically for terrorist threats.


Microbiologist Harry Danforth and other scientists are laying the groundwork for development of animal disease vaccines, including one for chicken coccidiosis. (Photo by Keith Weller, courtesy Agricultural Research Service)
As part of the plan, the United States needs to create a network of laboratories to coordinate the detection of bioterror agents in the event of an attack. The 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. And new technologies are needed to aid in the early detection of bioterror agents, particularly genetically engineered ones.

Early detection is key to stopping the spread of an agricultural bioterror attack, the committee stressed.

At the report's public release on Thursday, the committee noted that authorities may have already begun steps to correct some of the deficiencies noted in the report, based on briefings provided to federal officials earlier this year.


Validating tests for mad cow disease at a lab in Geel, Belgium. (Photo courtesy EU Joint Research Center)
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 on the report's preliminary findings and conclusions. The report also was submitted to the USDA and the Office of Homeland Security for a classification review.

In a statement issued Thursday in response to the report, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said the USDA has started implementing some of the report's recommendations.

"USDA has identified a priority list of threat agents and provided resources to increase research in this area," Veneman said, adding that the agency is working to strengthen its laboratory network to help detect bioterror agents. The USDA has also increased funding for research programs related to biological agents and detection technology, including $43 million in new grants to states and universities, she said.

"USDA has been working with other federal agencies in conducting various interagency, intergovernmental exercises to further test our systems," Veneman added. "A comprehensive exercise will take place later this month in a continued effort to strengthen this type of planning and coordination."


Wild and farmed elk can carry brucellosis, a disease that can make animals - and humans - spontaneously abort. (Photo by Keith Weller, courtesy Agricultural Research Service)
Among the steps the Bush administration has taken in an effort to improve the security of the nation's food supply is a proposal to transfer the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to the proposed Department of Homeland Security, which Congress is now debating. The NRC report was already in final stages of preparation when President George W. Bush called for this transfer, so the committee did not analyze the significance of such a move.

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.

"We are convinced that this report will increase our security by helping to inform and assist the nation in improving its awareness, capabilities, and plans to defend against threats of agricultural bioterrorism," wrote the presidents of the National Academies in a foreword to the report.

More information on steps the USDA is taking to counter the threat of bioterrorism is available at: http://www.usda.gov/homelandsecurity/homeland.html