Anthrax - How to protect ourselves

tack is suspected. What if someone manages to disperse spores over a crowd without anyone noticing? What officials would really like is a quick and easy way to test the air from a distance. Several groups are already working on "smoke detectors" for bioweapons, and remote detection from several kilometres away might be possible, too.

At the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, Page Stoutland and his team have built an antibody-based machine the size of a mailbox that sucks in air, checks for anthrax or other bacteria, and radios an alarm station if it finds anything. "The goal is to have something that sits there 24/7, detecting agents," says Stoutland.

But if there is a chance of false alarms as with other antibody tests, organisations may be reluctant to use such machines. At Johns Hopkins University, however, Wayne Bryden's team is developing mass spectrometer built into a detector the size of a large suitcase, which he says can distinguish between anthrax and its harmless relatives. He hopes to have a prototype ready soon.

For detecting bioweapons remotely, one technology that has already had some success is LIDAR, the laser analogue of radar. A helicopter-mounted system developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory fires powerful laser pulses at a suspect cloud. The reflected light reveals the size and density of the particles. If all are the same size, the cloud is likely to be artificial.

But LIDAR doesn't reveal the type of bacteria. So researchers shifted to ultraviolet wavelengths, which can yield signals unique to different pathogens up to 12 kilometres away. Still, the system cannot distinguish between anthrax and very similar bacteria. One solution may be to use super-strong laser pulses to burst the spores, releasing compounds that a detector can spot.

But these technologies won't be ready for some time. And even when detectors are available, they are not going to come cheap. Bryden's machine could cost hun

Contact: Claire Bowles
New Scientist

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