We stand on guard

Since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S. — and now with a war in Iraq — Canadians are more concerned than ever about what to do in the case of a terrorist attack. And while the government of Canada says the likelihood of a direct attack on Canadian soil is slim, the repercussions

of such an event are too serious to ignore. That’s why money, resources and technology are being put toward protecting Canada — and why the 2001 federal budget dedicated $7.7 billion to public security.

In the event of terrorism, the government and RCMP are primarily responsible — from law enforcement to intelligence, surveillance and investigation. But an effective response depends on co-operation between all levels of government, as well as international partners. Canada, for example, is working closely with the U.S., should a cross-border incident occur.

Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC) received $12 million to create the Counter Terrorism Technology Centre, which will house a technology test and evaluation site for assessing the effectiveness of equipment developed to deal with terrorism.

Extreme times call for extreme measures: this is an era in which bio-weapons scientists have the capability to genetically modify already existing biological weapons such as anthrax, ebola and smallpox into even more dangerous and resistant germs. Biological weapons include viruses like the Venezuelan equine encephalitis; bacteria such as anthrax and plague; rickettsiae such as Q fever and typhus; and toxins such as botulin, ricin and animal venoms. There are some 30 pathogenic microbes that have been identified by the Canadian government as likely biological warfare agents.

So what can be done? In the case of smallpox, not only are people coming together, but so are computers — all over the world. In order to prepare for a possible terrorist attack involving smallpox, the U.S. Department of Defense, IBM and a number of partners — including the Robarts Research Institute at the University of Western Ontario — are using computers to search for a cure. Grid computing is an emerging technology that creates a virtual supercomputer by allowing millions of PCs around the world to contribute their idle computing resources through a massive grid. Any person can download a screensaver that assigns their PC tasks when not in use; this data is then sent back to a central computer. The grid is powered by an IBM infrastructure, featuring p690s running DB2. With this virtual supercomputer, it’s possible to analyze chemical interactions between 35 million potential drug molecules with portions of the protein structure of the smallpox virus — in other words, to search for potential drug targets to treat smallpox post-infection.

A pox on viruses

Dr. Grant McFadden, Robarts scientist and co-director of the BioTherapeutics Research Group at Robarts, says compounds are ranked and experimental labs will test the top matches “”to find a comp

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Vawn Himmelsbach
Vawn Himmelsbach
Is a Toronto-based journalist and regular contributor to IT World Canada's publications.

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