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Tuesday, 25 September, 2001, 18:12 GMT 19:12 UK
WHO warns of bio-weapons risk
Equity trader David Rubinstein with gas mask in Manhattan
Some New Yorkers are keeping masks by their desks
A top official from the World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned against underestimating the risks of possible biological or chemical attacks after last week's atrocities in the United States.

The WHO has issued a draft report advising governments to start preparing response plans in the event of such an attack, which it said could involve diseases such as anthrax, botulism - which causes paralysis - or smallpox.

We're confident that countries are beginning to look at this as a real possibility because we've had calls from many different health ministers around the world

WHO official David Heymann
"We are suggesting people take the risks seriously and recognise that it might be easier than the use of other forms of potential terrorist weapons," David Nabarro, the WHO's executive director, told the BBC.

"Under these circumstances, it would be imprudent not to be thinking, at least, and planning as hard as possible," he said.

Crop-plane caution

Washington has declared that countries on a US blacklist for sponsoring terrorism have "very active chemical and biological warfare programmes".

Attorney General John Ashcroft said that one of the suspected hijackers, Mohamad Atta, had been gathering information on the use of crop-dusting aircraft, believed to be suitable for a biological attack, before the New York atrocity.

"Our investigation has uncovered several individuals, including individuals who may have links to the hijackers, who fraudulently have obtained or attempted to obtain hazardous material transportation licenses," he said.

Authorities fear crop-dusters might be used to carry out a chemical attack
Computer disks and hard-drive of one person in custody were discovered to contain information downloaded from the internet on the use of aerial applications of pesticides or crop-dusting, Mr Ashcroft added.

On Tuesday the authorities lifted a ban on the use of crop-duster planes imposed on Sunday, but all law enforcement agencies had been told to remain alert to the threat.

Stocking up

In New York, stores are reported to have sold out of gas masks as frightened residents took steps to protect themselves against such unconventional attacks.

A laboratory worker
The WHO says governments should be ready
In Britain, army and navy storeowners have also reported that sales of masks and protective clothing have soared in the wake of the attacks.

The WHO says governments are anxious for information.

"We're confident that countries are beginning to look at this as a real possibility because we've had calls from many different health ministers around the world who are concerned," said David Heymann, a WHO official.

"Their concerns are that there will be, or possibly will be, a very serious public health problem in the near future, deliberately caused, and they're asking for guidelines on how to face that situation."

One fear is that people could be infected for several days without knowing it, spreading disease further in the meantime. In such circumstances, experts say, masks would be of little use.

The BBC's George Eykyn
"It could take several days for a biological attack to even be spotted"
Defense analyst, Dr Martin Navais
discusses the difficulties terrorists would face using chemical warfare
See also:

24 Sep 01 | Sci/Tech
Q&A: The threat from bio-terrorism
25 Jul 01 | Americas
Analysis: US going against the flow
25 Sep 01 | UK
Is the UK prepared?
26 Jul 01 | Americas
A new national security policy
24 Sep 01 | Americas
US fears grow of biological attack
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