Mock smallpox attack shows US government unprepared for bioterrorism

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Last Updated: 2001-07-25 14:48:20 EDT (Reuters Health)

By Letitia Stein

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A simulation held in June to test the government's response to a biological weapons attack with smallpox virus found US authorities woefully unprepared, experts have told Congress.

"This would cripple the United States if it were to occur," John Hamre of the Center for Strategic and International Studies testified Monday before the Committee on Government Reform in the House of Representatives.

"No city, no state is capable of dealing with an incident like this," added Hamre, who was deputy secretary of defense under former President Bill Clinton.

The exercise, dubbed "Dark Winter," was based on a realistic scenario. It ended in more than 1000 fatalities and 15,000 reported smallpox cases–all simulated–less than 2 weeks after 24 "patients" first showed signs of an undiagnosed illness at an Oklahoma hospital. The simulation ended with no resolution to the "epidemic."

Current and former government officials convened at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland during the 2-day exercise to respond to the crisis, playing the roles of National Security Council members. Participants found that government officials at the federal and local levels, as well as the US medical community, were ill prepared.

Supplies of the smallpox vaccine are far less than needed in a national catastrophe and it would take weeks to make enough to deal with an emergency, the experts said. In the exercise, rioting and looting broke out when supplies of the vaccine ran out.

Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating told Congress that a major problem arose from the unclear division of duties between federal officials and local emergency responders. "I was really surprised by the level of ignorance, if not prejudice, against state and local responders," he said. "To have a whole panoply of federal officials descend on a city won't work."

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