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Countering Bioterror:
Bioterror in the Bluegrass

by Alicia P. Gregory

Lexington, Kentucky, is not likely a high-priority target for bioterrorists, says Cliff Tsuboi. "It would be more likely that we get caught in the crossfire—catch the secondary effects of an attack on a large city," says Tsuboi, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve who has a doctorate in biopharmaceutics from UK and who is a specialist on biowarfare and bioterrorism.

But Kentuckians traveling home by plane could bring infectious agents with them. "If bioterrorists wanted to infect large numbers of people, they'd pick an agent that's transmissible, like smallpox, and put it on an airplane," he says. Smallpox can be spread from person to person by something as simple as a cough. On a plane the deadliness of such a virus is multiplied by the re-circulated air.

Photo of Cliff Tsuboi"If you look at the history of biological warfare, you see it's not very efficient, at least in terms of causing the instantaneous death of thousands of people," says Cliff Tsuboi of UK's Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce. "It's designed mainly to breed panic and terror."

"They'd target major hubs like Chicago, Denver, Atlanta, New York, L.A.—where people go off in all directions. There'd be rapid dissemination, probably within 48 to 72 hours," Tsuboi says.

John Stempel and Robert Pringle, Tsuboi's colleagues in the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, speculate that if terrorists were to target Kentucky, venues like Churchill Downs, Commonwealth Stadium and Rupp Arena would be on the list because they can hold more than 20,000 people.

While there is no immediate threat to the state, Tsuboi says a much more likely— and potentially devastating—target would be the hog and chicken industry in Western Kentucky. "If they infected chickens with a really nasty virus, all they'd have to do is wait for it to go through the normal chain of events."

As Tsuboi explains, the flu virus comes from China, which has a well-established pig and duck industry. Viruses naturally move from birds (ducks or chickens) to pigs to humans. "What's happening is the virus is maturing," he says. "The bird is a different living environment than a mammal (like a pig or a human). However, viruses can bypass the pigs and go directly from bird to human, and when they do they tend to be highly virulent.

"Plain old, garden-variety influenza can be very lethal because it mutates as it reproduces. That's why you have to get a flu shot every year—it's a different bug. Antibiotics are useless; you've got to have a vaccine. And you don't make vaccines overnight. In a good year we can whip up a vaccine in six months."

For years army and navy medical research units in Asia, Latin America, Africa, and Europe have monitored infectious diseases like influenza in order to identify the strain, allowing scientists time to manufacture vaccines to combat the specific bug before it makes its way to the United States. "But the world has shrunk and, despite 9/11, air travel is intense and our warning time is basically nonexistent," says Tsuboi.

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