The longstanding goals in biological weapons R&D have been to produce biological agents that are more virulent, more stable, more viable, easier to handle and deploy, require less time to manufacture, and are more difficult to defend against. However, with the focus in the United States on homeland security, and the worldwide pressure against the development and use of biological warfare agents, the bulk of publicly accessible research and development funding will likely be centered on detecting and responding to a biological attack.
There are major developments in the areas of pathogen detectors, antidotes, and means of rapidly generating pathogen-specific antidotes and vaccines. The brute-force approach to detecting anthrax and other airborne biologicals is to use a particle detector, much like those used in home smoke detectors. More advanced detectors are based on LIDAR (Light Detection And Ranging), which operate like radar at visible and UV light frequencies. The problem with LIDAR is that it can't distinguish between biologicals, harmless bacteria, or natural clouds of pollen or mold spores.
Another approach to detecting airborne biologicals with high selectivity is to use pathogen-specific DNA probes on a chip. One of the most promising technologies is under development by the Northwestern Institute for Nanotechnology, which has a chip that can quickly indicate the presence of a specific biological in the atmosphere. A major limitation of this technology is that chip processing can require several hours. An alternative to the DNA detector chip technology is to use an antibody-based detection system that circumvents the time and complexity associated with processing DNA. An example of a system that uses real-time detection is RAPTOR, which is under development at the United States Naval Research Laboratory.
In the area of containing the spread of disease following the exposure of a population to a biological, a number of experimental information systems, such as the U.S. Air Force's Lightweight Epidemiology Advanced Detection and Emergency Response System (LEADERS), are under development. LEADERS is a Web-based system designed to empower medical personnel to track symptom outbreaks as they are reported by hospitals in real time. In the event of a biological attack, it is intended to allow public health officials to map geographic regions where outbreaks are occurring and to determine the response capabilities of various medical facilities.
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