Biosafety coordinator presents on bioterrorism

There is anthrax in Minnesota. In fact, there’s anthrax in the soil in all 50 states in the country.

Eric Lundquist, biosafety outreach coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Health, gave a presentation March 2 on bioterrorism, and Minnesota’s response to it, at Anoka-Ramsey Community College’s Cambridge campus as part of the college’s annual Science Night.

Eric Lundquist gives his presentation at Anoka-Ramsey Community College in Cambridge. Photo by Austin Gerth
Eric Lundquist gives his presentation at Anoka-Ramsey Community College in Cambridge.
Photo by Austin Gerth

Bioterrorism is terrorism that uses the purposeful spread of bacteria or viruses to harm humans, plants and animals, and to create fear. One of the most famous acts of bioterrorism in U.S. history was the anthrax attacks that occurred a few days after 9/11, in which envelopes containing anthrax spores were mailed to the offices of a pair of U.S. senators and several news media organizations.

In Minnesota, clear acts of bioterrorism are not common, but the department Lundquist works for deals with it when it does or when it’s suspected.

“Obviously if we had a ton of bioterrorism here, you would know we had bioterrorism here,” Lundquist said.

Minnesota has a network of laboratories, the Minnesota Laboratory System, which form a part of a greater national network of laboratories, the Laboratory Response Network. The national network manages biosafety issues, one of which is the threat of bioterrorism. These labs work to enhance the quality of the state’s microbiology practice, prepare for the event of an infectious disease outbreak and detect and deal with biosafety threats proactively. The Minnesota network is composed of a mix of public and private labs.

A big component of biosafety monitoring is BioWatch, an air monitoring program started by the Bush administration after 9/11. There are filters at secret locations throughout the state that are used to test the air for the presence of infectious or viral agents that could be weaponized by bioterrorists. These filters are meant to detect possible bioterrorist attacks quickly.

Although Minnesota does not have much of a history of bioterrorism, it is not completely without potential targets for such attacks. One example Lundquist mentioned was the Mall of America, which is both a national landmark and a highly populated space. Lundquist said the ramifications of an attack there would go beyond the loss of life during the attack itself: The mall could be turned into a Chernobyl-like permanent biosafety danger zone due to the hardiness of dangerous pathogens used by bioterrorists.

“It would be impossible to clean the Mall of America,” Lundquist said. The mall also could not be torn down after such an attack because doing so would cause residual bacteria or virus spores to disburse over many miles through the air.

As for the anthrax already in Minnesota, although spores of the bacteria are present in soil in every U.S. state and across the world, they are usually not dangerous. Anthrax spores carry an electrostatic charge that cause them to stick to surfaces, Lundquist said. Weaponization of anthrax, which gained so much press coverage after the post-9/11 anthrax attacks, requires the would-be bioterrorists to remove that charge.

“There’s been (anthrax) spores that have been known to have lasted 300 years,” Lundquist said.

It is unlikely for a person to become infected by the anthrax spores that exist in soil, although not impossible. One man from Fergus Falls did become infected in 2011, and he was not the victim of a bioterrorist attack. According to Lundquist, he had just gotten back from a family road trip vacation. They had been driving with the windows down, and the man may have contracted the virus from soil kicked up through the open windows of their vehicle.

He may also have contracted the illness through animal contact. Luckily, he survived with treatment.

When suspicious powders that could be anthrax get called in, Lundquist’s department deals with it. He said there are about two or three such calls each month in the state, which is consistent with other states since 2001. The powders are typically not anthrax.

“We just had one last week,” Lundquist said. “It ended up being a crushed up Valentine’s heart.”
Lundquist gave a run down of several other potential bioterrorism agents, including small pox, the plague and botulism toxin, among others.

For more information on the Minnesota Department of Health’s Minnesota Laboratory system, visit health.state.mn.us/mls.