Experts say decades of research at Dugway Proving Ground show that America has reliable protection for its soldiers if Iraq were to attack with new biological weapons it is developing.
But they also warn that holes in that defense could exist, depending on how far Iraq's technology has advanced. Also, the U.S. military has not yet taken the key protection measures of inoculating soldiers with vaccine for deadly anthrax.Last week, Central Intelligence Agency Director William H. Webster and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin, D-Wisc., said Iraq has a stockpile of biological weapons besides the chemical weapons it has previously used.
Aspin added that intelligence sources report Iraq will have a "militarily significant number" of such weapons ready in a few months that could spread anthrax disease-causing spores from artillery shells, bombs and missiles.
Gary Resnick, chief of life sciences at Dugway, said pulmonary anthrax is fatal in 60 percent to 80 percent of advanced cases, but anti-microbe treatment is more successful if the disease is detected early.
He said testing at Dugway has shown that the same facemasks used with other gear for protection from chemical attacks will also prevent inhaling anthrax-causing spores. It has also developed effective decontaminating agents and vaccines.
For example, he said, in recent years the Army used bacillus subtilis spores - which are the same size and have other characteristics similar to anthrax spores, but are much less dangerous - to ensure that respirators and other gear would stop them, he said.
The Army also used bacillus subtilis to ensure it could decontaminate tanks and other field equipment and their ventilation systems. "There are basically two ways to get rid of anthrax spores. One is to physically remove them; the other is to deactivate them so they won't grow and cause disease.
"We found soap and water are good at physically removing the spores, and DS2 (decontaminating solution No. 2) or tropical bleach are good to deactivate them," Resnick said.
Another basic defense is an anthrax vaccine the Army has developed. "We have a licensed vaccine for anthrax. It's available if and when the Department of Defense decides it's needed," said Chuck Dacey, spokesman for the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command at Ft. Detrick, Md.
He added that it was not among the basic vaccinations given to soldiers shipped to the Middle East. Lt. Col. Steve Roy, a Pentagon spokesman, said no information is yet available about future plans to use that vaccine in the Middle East.
One problem with the vaccine, Resnick pointed out, is it is only effective against the "garden variety type of anthrax." If Iraq has used modern genetic engineering to alter anthrax spores, the vaccine may be useless.
Decades of other Dugway tests - which in the early years included controversial open-air use of actual anthrax spores, although that was later banned - have shown some other problems in defending against anthrax.
For example, Resnick said "the aerosol cloud shortly after dissemination becomes invisible," meaning U.S. troops might not know that they are under germ attack and therefore might not quickly put on respirators and other protective gear.
Documents obtained in previous years by the Deseret News also show the U.S. military has done research into how much anthrax can be dispersed with the clouds remaining invisible.
Dacey said normally the only way to be sure an anthrax attack has occurred is to diagnose it in a patient. "We have developed a rapid diagnostic capability, so we can tell quickly if someone has been exposed to it," he said.
Even if soldiers in the hot deserts of the Middle East realize they are under germ attack, they can likely use protective face masks and suits only for a limited time. But tests have shown that anthrax spores are hardy and can survive in many environments almost indefinitely.
The good news for soldiers is that it takes exposure to a fairly high number of spores to cause pulmonary anthrax, the most deadly form of the disease. Resnick said that requires 10,000 or so spores. But again, that assumes Iraq has not genetically engineered anthrax to spread it more easily.
Resnick said anthrax sores on the skin can occur with exposure to relatively few spores, but treatment of it is relatively easy.