Is there a way to detect a biological attack

01:00 Mon 17th Dec 2001 |

asks Tonyb:
The US has spent millions of dollars trying to develop early warning detectors for biological attacks. It has set some up the Pentagon, but even these don't work particularly well.

Which is why soldiers have to fall back on the bulky protection masks pictured on our home page.

Q. Why
It's a truck-based system which can identify four biological agents in less than 45 minutes. However, they are very big, very expensive, slow to recognise problems and have lots of false alarms.

Q. Is there any point in having an early warning system
Yes. Anthrax doesn't work as a weapon if you're aware of it. People infected with anthrax are likely to survive if they are treated quickly. Otherwise, by the time the symptoms of inhaling anthrax appear, it's usually too late to do anything about it.

Q. So what we need is something like a smoke detector
Yes. An inexpensive device that quietly samples the air and sounds a warning only when something dangerous is found.

Q. So what's the problem
A. Mainly that it's difficult to distinguish between the stuff that's normally found on the air and the really dangerous stuff.�

Air samplers - similar to the ones which monitor air quality - may be put into use in vulnerable areas in the US. Their big drawback is that samples have to be taken to a laboratory for testing and the results take a few hours. While this doesn't give enough warning to evacuate a building, it would allow people to be treated in time.

Q. So what's being developed
The newest system draws in air and traps any particles in a liquid, which then flows past tiny beads coated with antibodies that hook on to only certain pathogens. The prototype of this will be ready in a year.

Q. It all sounds very expensive - what about a home kit
It's cheaper to test for just one thing, and a US company plans to being out a home testing kit for anthrax. It works by leaving a container filled with water and chemicals in a room for half an hour to collect particles from the air. Then the bottle is closed and shaken, turning the liquid bright red. Anthrax bacteria or spores would set off chemical reactions that would change the colour to yellow in one to two days.

However, you'd need to suspect that an anthrax attack had taken place first.

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By Sheena Miller

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