Experts say it would be easily accomplished, virtually undetectable and almost universally deadly _ a terrorist attack using anthrax bacteria.
That threat has prompted the Department of Defense to line up the nation's 2.4-million military men and women and inject them each six times with the anthrax vaccine.
Vaccinations of active-duty personnel are under way now. Then Florida will be a pilot program for the Army Reserve and National Guard, beginning in January, before the program is taken nationwide.
But the nation's police forces, paramedics and ambulance drivers _ presumably the first on the scene of a biological attack _ have been offered no protection, and it may be several years before there is enough vaccine.
BioPort Corp., the only company making the vaccine, has to satisfy the military demands of 5.3-million doses before it can sell up to 300,000 doses on the commercial market, said Kelly Rossman-McKinney, a spokeswoman for the Lansing, Mich., manufacturer.
Bill Parizek, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Health, said there are no plans to vaccinate Florida police officers, paramedics or others who possibly come into contact with the bacteria.
The decision to begin vaccinating Reserve and Guard members comes as the military struggles to overcome distrust among active-duty troops who have fears about the vaccine. Some sailors, soldiers and Marines have opted for punishment ranging from prison time to dismissal from the military rather than take the anthrax vaccine.
A helicopter technician at Mayport U.S. Naval Station in Jacksonville, Zachary Johnson, 22, faces a special court-martial Monday after refusing to take the vaccine because he fears its safety and efficiency.
About 200 service members have refused to take the vaccine out of concern about adverse side effects, including soreness, rashes, headaches and fevers.
Nearly 900,000 service members have been immunized so far. The Pentagon says more than 79 have reported adverse effects, but all have recovered.
The Pentagon believes 10 countries have the capability to use anthrax as a biological weapon against U.S. troops. Anthrax has never been used in combat, but the Pentagon fears Iraq, North Korea or terrorist groups might try.
Anthrax is a natural bacterium found in domesticated animals. A person infected with the bacteria would first experience flulike symptoms. Unless treated quickly with antibiotics and the vaccine, he or she would begin running a high fever and suffer bleeding in the lungs. Death comes within 24 to 36 hours of the first symptoms.