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Trying To Prevent The 'Unthinkable'

Could terrorists resort to biological or chemical weapons in future attacks? Jerry Bowen tracks the effort to defeat the "unthinkable."

Crop dusters are back in the air over California and the rest of the country. As unlikely as it may seem, they are now viewed as potential terrorist weapons, even by their owners.

Gene Thome of Eastland Flying Service, says, "It would probably be a good idea to have someone guarding these planes--maybe around the clock."

Already working against the clock in the navy port of San Diego, researchers are trying to develop an early warning system for chemical or biological attacks.

Says Michael Sailor, a UCSD scientist, "You don’t know what is going to be thrown at you."

Researchers are trying to perfect a laboratory on a chip that can instantly identify any toxin--from the deadly fast-acting sarin, to the slower working Anthrax, which causes flu-like symptoms at first.

"What we want to do, is have a cheap laboratory that can be deployed everywhere," says Sailor. "You know, we can have hundreds of these things in subway stations, in football stadiums, analyzing the air, analyzing the water."

Telling hazardous materials teams what they are up against, the sarin chip already shows promise. But the biological detector is still five years away, which means that the nation’s health workers remain the primary warning system.

Federal officials have asked hospitals and doctors in the San Diego area to be especially vigilant for any unusual diseases that might indicate a chemical or biological attack. San Diego is seen as vulnerable because of its coastal location, proximity to the border with Mexico, and its large military presence.

"We are at a state of heightened awareness and continue to be," says Dr. George Flores, Director of the San Diego County Health Department. "We are also aware in terms of numbers when an event actually happens, that are system is going to be unbelievably strained."

So a nation already trying to recover from one nightmare, is trying to find ways to prepare for potentially yet another.
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