West plans simulated anthrax attack

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Western nations are to simulate an anthrax attack to gauge how governments and the emergency services would cope with a biological, chemical or nuclear terrorist incident.

The plans to run through a series of disaster scenarios to test the international community's contingency plans, including the supply of vaccines, were agreed in London by health ministers from eight countries yesterday.

In the first international exercise of its kind, the group, chaired by the Health minister John Hutton, agreed to "model" a range of possible terrorist attacks at a time of mounting concern that deadly weapons are being stockpiled to be unleashes on the West.

Mr Hutton, who said Iraq was not discussed at the meeting, said: "It is the responsibility of all democratic governments to make sure that the health and safety and well-being of our citizens is our top priority.

"We are taking action here in the UK to make sure we have the necessary supplies, vaccines, antibodies, to ensure that we have effective health protection for our citizens."

Dr David Harper, the Government's chief scientist, said: "They would discuss, for example, if something happened in Paris what action would be necessary in Washington, and what we can do with people travelling from country to country, what are the real risks, what are the contingencies already in place on air flights, and so on."

The two-day meeting was set up by Alan Milburn, the Secretary of State for Health, after the 11 September attacks. The ministers – from Britain, America, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Mexico – and the EU health commissioner, David Byrne, first met in Ottawa in November to agree to tighten health security.

The collaborators said: "We remain firm in our resolve and commitment to continue working together, and to co-ordinate our efforts in the interest of the health and security of our citizens, and to enhance our respective capacities to deal with public health incidents."

Claude Allen, US deputy health and human services secretary, briefed his counterparts on the anthrax attacks in his country last autumn.

He said: "We know that it is imperative that we be able to surveille and to detect very quickly what is happening, but also be very prepared to respond in a rapid system. And that's domestically and internationally."

* An American expert claimed last night the anthrax attacks on the US might have been the result of CIA "field trial" that went disastrously wrong or was abused by an expert. Barbara Rosenberg, the director of the Federation of American Scientists' Chemical and Biological Weapons Programme, raised the possibility on the BBC programme Newsnight, by saying: "The result might have been a project gone awry" .

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