There are no reliable tests available to screen asymptomatic people who may have been exposed to a bioterrorism agent. For people who are showing signs and symptoms, there are rapid molecular assays available to help detect the agent.
Not every laboratory is equipped to test for bioterrorism agents. In 1999, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), with its founding partners the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Association of Public Health Laboratories, established the Laboratory Response Network (LRN), an integrated national and international group of clinical, public health, environmental, food, water, veterinary, military, and agriculture laboratories that can respond quickly to bioterrorism, chemical terrorism, and other public health threats.
The network includes thousands of routine clinical laboratories (sentinel laboratories) that perform preliminary testing to rule out bioterrorism agents and refer suspect agents to regional reference laboratories. Regional reference laboratories can confirm the identity of organisms referred to them by sentinel labs. Regional labs also handle environmental samples (powders, dust, soil and water) determined to be credible threats by the law enforcement/public health communities. At the national level are specialized laboratories that are equipped and designed to grow and contain high concentrations of highly infectious biological agents and identify specific agent strains. These national labs also provide standardized reagents, protocols, training, and a secure electronic communications system to designated LRN laboratories.
Today, the U.S. government as well as the research community and industry are working aggressively to develop quick and effective methods to protect people against agents such as Bacillus anthracis (the cause of anthrax) that could be used in another bioterrorist attack. In addition, where possible, research is being focused on developing and/or improving vaccines as an effective public health protective measure.
Laboratories are better prepared than ever before to respond quickly to bioterrorism with the appropriate tests, identifying the causes of illnesses and coordinating with local and state health departments, law enforcement, the CDC, and other government agencies so that containment and rapid treatment can follow.