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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Deploys Germ Monitors

WASHINGTON -- To help protect against the threat of bioterrorism, U.S. President George W. Bush's administration on Wednesday will start deploying a national system of environmental monitors that is intended to tell within 24 hours whether anthrax, smallpox and other deadly germs have been released into the air, senior administration officials said Tuesday.

The system uses advanced data analysis that officials said had been quietly adapted since the Sept. 11 attacks and tested over the past nine months. It will adapt many of the Environmental Protection Agency's 3,000 air-quality monitoring stations throughout the country to register unusual quantities of a wide range of deadly pathogens.

Officials said that although the system would not by itself protect Americans against a germ attack, early detection of such a strike would give the government more time to mobilize medical resources that could save thousands, and even hundreds of thousands, of lives.

Under the system, the EPA monitoring stations will send samples of a tissue-like paper from newly upgraded machines that filter air to the closest of some 120 laboratories across the country associated with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Results will be available within 24 hours and possibly within 12 hours.

Although officials declined to say which or how many EPA monitoring stations would ultimately be used, experts on the government's program said the first environmental monitoring stations in the new system, called Bio-Watch, were in New York, which has more than seven such outdoor stations now mainly monitoring for air pollution.

"We will ramp up to other cities and areas of concentrated populations very quickly," one official said. "Within a matter of days, we will be able to tell in almost any major urban area whether a large release of a dangerous pathogen has occurred, what was released and where and when it occurred."

Officials said Tuesday that the introduction of the system by the newly created Department of Homeland Security was not linked to a specific terrorist threat. The intelligence community, one senior official noted, has "no credible evidence that al-Qaida has acquired biological weapons or any weapon of mass destruction at this time."

But the system is being deployed as the Bush administration moves toward deciding whether to use military force against Iraq. After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Iraq declared having made thousands of gallons of liquid anthrax, botulinum toxin and other pathogens that cause disease, and it may have kept stocks of deadly smallpox virus as well.

Although Baghdad says it has destroyed these stockpiles, U.S. officials believe it is hiding some of its chemical and germ agents and that it tested anthrax as an aerosol before the gulf war.

However, one senior official said, the new environmental surveillance system was not being deployed specifically because of Iraq, but "to prepare the country for whatever the weapon and whomever the culprit might be."

While environmental monitoring does not provide instant detection of the release of a dangerous germ, the new system is aimed at giving health officials more time to respond to a bioterror attack. Doctors and terrorism experts have long said that the lack of such a system is one of the biggest deficiencies in the nation's biodefenses.

While the government is still working to develop cheap and reliable instant detectors, the technology has yet to be perfected, officials said. The hand-held detectors, which have been distributed in some cities, and others that are now being tested provide what experts call too many "false positives" -- mistaken identifications of a germ release.

The new environmental surveillance system uses monitoring technology and methods developed in part by the Energy Department's national laboratories. Samples of DNA are analyzed using polymerase chain reaction techniques, which examine the genes of the organisms in a sample and make rapid and accurate evaluations of that organism.

Officials who helped develop the system said that tests performed at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah and national laboratories showed that the system would almost certainly detect the deliberate release of several of the most dangerous pathogens.

The anthrax attacks of October 2001 would probably not have been detected by the new system, officials said, mainly because the outbreak was caused by a tiny amount of anthrax -- one to two grams -- and because the release was indoors, where the sensors do not monitor.

Officials said the new system would not detect releases in such places as shopping malls, subways and other covered areas.

"But the system is calibrated to detect relatively small amounts of some of the agents of greatest concern," an official said, referring to smallpox and larger releases of anthrax.