Bioterrorists may mount foot and mouth attack

Mark Townsend
Sunday January 5, 2003
The Observer

Defences against a bioterrorist attack involving animal diseases such as
foot and mouth are to be stepped up to prevent rogue groups targeting
Britain's food chain.

Following recent warnings that terrorists are planning a high street attack,
attention has moved to another potential target - the national herd.

Ministers will launch their animal welfare strategy on Wednesday, starting
plans for a 10-year 'biosecurity' operation to protect livestock.

Safeguarding the economy and food chain from the deliberate introduction of
livestock viruses has become a pressing concern. Neil Thornton, director of
animal health for the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs,
said the threat of bioterrorism had become a 'legitimate area for us to

The devastating impact of the last foot and mouth outbreak underlined its
potency as a potential weapon. Defence experts believe foot and mouth could
be a low-tech weapon of mass destruction.

Not only can the disease be produced on a huge scale, it can also be
transported without detection in a container the size of a fountain pen.

Suspicion has focused on Iraq, amid fears that President Saddam Hussein
ordered research into the military application of foot and mouth. The
research is reported to have started at Iraq's al-Dawrah laboratory, near
Baghdad, in the late 1980s. But UN inspectors who investigated the plant in
1991 accepted that it was a civilian facility involved in producing vaccine
for foot and mouth.

This week's consultation document, unveiled by animal welfare Minister
Elliot Morley, calls for 'the threat of bioterrorism and illegal imports' to
be addressed.

A surveillance scheme designed to increase early detection of disease in the
national herd and prevent viruses entering the UK will be devised in tandem
with the welfare strategy.

Although the risk of a bioterrorist attack on livestock remains small
compared to a conventional attack, the threat has long been recognised by
defence analysts. Both the US Department of Agriculture and the CIA list
foot and mouth as one of 15 animal agents that could have biological warfare

A step-by-step guide on how terrorist groups could use foot and mouth
vaccine to bring a country to its knees are explored in US defence
documents. It illustrates how a single phial of foot and mouth could be
transported into a country with minimal risk of interception.

The use of foot and mouth as a potential weapon is not new. During the Cold
War, the US and the Soviet Union are believed to have 'weaponised' such