Biotech Versus Bioterror

Shortly after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, a white van with tinted windows showed up in the small parking lot just outside the West Wing of the White House--the parking lot next to the Old Executive Office Building and just behind where members of the press assembles on "pebble beach" for their nightly stand-up broadcasts in front of the White House. The van remained parked there day and night, with its running motor evidenced by the exhaust billowing from its tailpipe. Nobody was seen getting in or out. It never moved. And a collection of antennas and a satellite dish on the roof, as well as a long hose about six-inches wide that protruded from the van's back door and rested on the nearby asphalt, suggested the van didn't belong to the White House plumber. It turns out, we would learn much later, that the van contained a crude contraption for sniffing out and spotting the favored agents of would-be bioterrorists--pathogens such as anthrax, tularemia and the plague. It was a make-shift solution to a new threat--up until the attacks of Sept. 11 and the circulation of mail containing anthrax spores, the military and the U.S. public health apparatus gave relatively short shrift to bioterrorism defense. That has now changed. And with our growing investments in the technology for thwarting bioterrorist agents, the fortunes of the companies that develop this technology have changed as well.

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