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"San Francisco airport serves as lab to quietly test bioterror sensors"
Tuesday, March 25, 2003
S.F. airport serves as lab to quietly test bioterror sensors
Scientists, SFO officials check out the limits of technology for guarding
By Ian Hoffman
The Oakland (CA) Tribune
As more than 65,000 people a day heft luggage into San Francisco
International Airport to be scanned for guns and bombs, hidden machines
occasionally sniff the air they breathe for lethal gases and germs.
Inside SFO, defense scientists are quietly testing a variety of chemical and
bio-warfare sensors in a race to guard airports nationwide against terrorist
Today, chemical or biological detectors are at work in New York, Washington
and other U.S. cities. But SFO is the nation's only major international
airport testing detectors for chemical and biological agents, sensors that
are equally or more accurate than the military detectors rolling and flying
into Iraq with U.S. forces.
SFO is, in fact, a laboratory, serving as the nation's model for protecting
airports and perhaps other large indoor, public places viewed as attractive
Over months of experimenting, scientists, airport managers and security
staff are getting a preview of complications in the domestic war on terror,
where they face decisions largely hidden from the flying public.
The SFO experiments suggest that sensor technology, while promising for
crisis management, may never be a full answer to bioterrorism. Even the best
of today's biosensors, relying on DNA fingerprinting, pose built-in delays
of up to four hours in confirming the existence of some key bioterror
agents. Guarding airports probably will require multiple biosensors, some
slow and accurate, others fast and open to false alarms.
In the event of an attack, that means airport managers still will face a
difficult calculus, tinged with uncertainty as they weigh the risk of
greater loss of life against frightening or alienating the public through
airport evacuations. To compensate, their actions will have to be fast,
intelligent and made with a grasp for the consequences.
The SFO experiments put those consequences before airport managers with more
clarity than ever before. Scientists already have found new ways to minimize
casualties in attacks on any airport. They plan to offer that advice to
Oakland International, San Jose International and other airports, even as
the SFO work continues.
Using smoke releases and computer simulations, for example, the need for
rethinking airport evacuations became obvious. If terrorists strike an
airport for maximum effect -- releasing gas or germs in a crowded main
terminal -- then evacuating passengers would expose healthy passengers and
spread the cloud.
"We discovered evacuation (through main terminals) would actually kill more
people," said Duane Lindner, deputy director of Chem/Bio Programs at Sandia
National Laboratories/California at a recent biodefense conference.
Sandia executives decline to identify the airports where detectors are
installed under PROACT, the federal research project on detectors and other
ways to protect airports, now housed in the Department of Homeland Security.
Officials at San Francisco International also decline to talk about the
experiments. "I can't talk about that for security reasons right now," said
Michael McCarron, SFO director of community affairs.
Officials involved in the experiments insisted on keeping details of the
detectors secret -- their number, location, appearance and capabilities --
so that terrorists could not identify, disable or defeat them. But all were
designed for anonymity, to be unobtrusive boxes breathing on a wall or
Despite the secrecy, sufficient details have emerged in public statements
and interviews with government officials and scientists to show SFO has a
leading role in exploring national anti-terror defenses.
It could be a year or more before the SFO experiments lead scientists to a
standard chem-bio sniffer system that federal security officials will
recommend for every U.S. airport and possibly airports abroad. But in a
matter of months, officials expect much of what is learned at SFO will
change how U.S. airport managers plan to respond to terror attacks.
Scientists began studying subways and airports in the late 1990s as
anti-terror experts realized both were chillingly efficient at magnifying
the effects of terror attacks. In airports, the greatest fear is the release
of smallpox or other contagious agents, unwittingly carried by airline
passengers across the nation and across the globe in hours.
The latest evidence came last week when a germ leaped two oceans in a few
days, stowing away in the lungs of a Singapore doctor en route to New York
then Frankfurt. The bug triggers a mysterious pneumonia classified as Severe
Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and has spread to at least 16 countries,
with 10 suspected cases of infected individuals in California, half of them
in Santa Clara, Alameda and Sonoma counties -- most having flown from Asia.
Scientists are mapping the air flows of subways and airports, designing
sensor networks and advising airports on responding to alarms from a variety
of detectors. But the fastest and most relevant are the most open to
mistaking common bacteria for biowarfare agents.
For now, no biodetector is capable of foolproof, "real-time" identification
of the likeliest bioterror agents. The most accurate commercial
biodetectors, originally devised by Lawrence Livermore Lab, issue a false
alarm just once every 10,000 tests. But the turnaround time for results is
two to four hours.
That may be enough time for authorities to intercept airliners full of
infected passengers before they reach their next destination and start
administering antibiotics or vaccines. It is what anti-terror scientists
call a "detect to treat" technology.
Yet even as Livermore scientists roll out a new, robotic smoke-alarm for
germs, performing both antigen tests and DNA-fingerprinting tests in less
than half an hour -- a staggering feat -- it probably still won't be fast
enough to alert airport officials to evacuate a terminal.
"Today, there is no silver bullet," said Pat Fitch, director of Livermore
lab's Chemical and Biological National Security Program.
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