13 May 2004

Bioterrorism expert warns of pandemic

Bioterrorism expert warns of pandemic:

By Sarah Bouchard

A bioterrorism expert testified before Congress yesterday that a deadly new influenza strain could cause the next worldwide epidemic in the near future.

David Relman, an infectious-diseases clinician and researcher who teaches at Stanford University’s medical school, said the avian flu — which kills about two-thirds of infected humans — could reach the scale of the 1918 worldwide pandemic that killed about 30 million people.

Relman added that although the disease has surfaced only in animal populations of Southeast Asia, it is likely to acquire the capability to be transferred easily among humans “fairly soon.”

Relman’s comments came at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on terrorism, technology and homeland security. Although memories of the lethal ricin powder found in Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s (R-Tenn.) office in February and the anthrax spores mailed to then-Sen. Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) in 2001 have not faded, Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who chairs the subcommittee, and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the panel’s ranking member, were the only members who attended.

To combat avian flu and other threats — including al Qaeda-produced anthrax — the four witnesses detailed a program in the works that could identify infectious agents within an hour. Diagnosing many bioterrorism agents currently takes days, weeks and sometimes years.

The effort, known as “Project Zebra,” involves collaborative research by doctors and scientists to create a genetic-profile database of infectious agents and a diagnostic test that will allow doctors to distinguish quickly between bioterror agents and routine sicknesses. "

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