WASHINGTON - Anthrax. Smallpox… these words were commonplace following 9/11 as potential weapons of terror against the United States.
Some experts believe a bioterrorist attack or pandemic outbreak could be inevitable. So how would the U.S. fight back against an infectious disease outbreak?
Hollywood Fantasy - or Grim Reality?
Picture this frightening scenario: a contagious virus breaks out in America's heartland. Spreading quickly, it overwhelms hospitals making thousands violently ill and killing hundreds.
Chaos rules the streets and the economy is in shambles.
Then our worst fears are confirmed: terrorists have released smallpox onto the American public.
No, this isn't a Hollywood blockbuster. It's an actual terror threat the U.S. government wants to be prepared to fight.
"We still need to beef up and get ready for when the next human being purposely infects himself or herself to come into the United States with an intention of either infecting humans or infecting our food source," said Frank Rapoport.
Rapoport helps the government with bioterrorism issues.
"After 1991, when 40,000 Russian scientists dispersed all over the globe because they were no longer employed by the Soviet Union - where do you think they went for employment, with the knowledge they have of how to weaponize e-bola, the plague, making a cocktail of the worst magnitude?" Rapoport challenged.
Some analysts believe former Soviet scientists sold this type of technology to countries like Iran, Syria and North Korea.
And then there's al-Qaeda. The Pentagon says the group has been pursuing biological weapons for years.
The most famous bio-terror case hit the U.S. shortly after 9/11 when anthrax was spread through the U.S. postal system.
Five people died and at least a dozen more suffered injuries after handling the contaminated mail. Investigators still don't know who was behind those attacks.
"I think most people in the bio-defense world are dumbfounded as to why we haven't seen more bio-terror attacks. It is too easy to manufacture bioterror threats. They can be manufactured faster than countermeasures can be developed," said James Joyce, head of Aethlon Medical.
Countermeasures are Joyce's specialty. His small biotech company, Aethlon Medical, has developed a device called the hemopurifier.
"What the device does is it mimics your own natural immune response of clearing the viruses and toxins before cells and organs can be infected." he explained. "It's specifically designed to address viral pathogens that are bioterrorism or pandemic threats."
The hemopurifier is about the size of a rolling pin.
Here's how it works: the device is hooked up to a dialysis machine, then attached to a body part - an arm for instance. It then filters that infected blood - viruses and toxins -- out of the body, cleans that blood, and sends the purified blood right back into the bloodstream.
Joyce says the device's biggest benefit is that it can be used to counter different threats, rather than just one specific virus or disease.
"The focus moving forward into the future is really broad specturm therapies that have the ability to address multiple strains of bioterror and pandemic threats," he said. "If you were to talk to experts in bioterrorism, they would say it's probably 50 to 70 viral pathogens that could be weaponized as an agent of bioterrorism."
In 2004 the Project Bioshield Act encouraged large pharmaceutical companies to develop vaccines and countermeasures to a bioterrorist attack.
Those companies mostly fell by the wayside because there would be little or no profit for those products.
That provided an opening for companies like Aethlon Medical. In 2006, Congress granted more funding for products like the hemopurifier.
The Threat of a Pandemic Outbreak
While terrorists and rogue regimes may be able to get their hands on them, biological weapons like anthrax are extremely difficult to weaponize. And the government is producing a growing number of vaccines and medicines to combat the threat.
A more likely scenario is an outbreak of a naturally occurring pandemic disease.
"The more we have an international economy and the more people travel the more they will be exposed to new organisms. And they'll bring them back home," said Julie Fischer, an expert on biodefense and global disease threats at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington.
"Someone can get on a plane in Bangkok and be in New York 17 hours later. That's not enough to build a defense. And as we learned from the SARS epidemic in 2003, it isn't just people in rural areas that would be affected," Fischer said.
The SARS epidemic started in China and spread to at least 30 countries, including the U.S. No vaccines existed and almost 800 people died after being infected.
Fischer says a pandemic outbreak of the H5N1 strain of influenza, or bird flu, may be the next major threat on the horizon. So is the U.S. prepared to deal with such a crisis?
Since 2002, the Bush administration has spent billions preparing for the effects of a bioterrorist attack or infectious disease outbreak. The government wants to stifle any potential outbreak before it even starts.
High-tech sensors have been installed in several American cities that can detect harmful airborne pathogens. Early detection may be able to save lives.
But at the end of the day, state and local governments may play the biggest role.
"People can't wait for the federal government to protect them," Fischer said. "If there is a biological attack, or if there is a pandemic, people will have to take reasonable steps to take care of themselves.
That means stocking up on water, canned goods and medical supplies, and being aware of the emergency plan for your community.