As of October 2001, the potential for use of infectious agents, such as anthrax, as weapons has been firmly established. It has been suggested that attacks on a nation’s agriculture might be a preferred form of terrorism or economic disruption that would not have the attendant stigma of infecting and causing disease in humans. Highly pathogenic avian influenza virus is on every top ten list available for potential agricultural bioweapon agents, generally following foot and mouth disease virus and Newcastle disease virus at or near the top of the list. Rapid detection techniques for bioweapon agents are a critical need for the first-responder community, on a par with vaccine and antiviral development in preventing spread of disease. There are several current approaches for rapid, early responder detection of biological agents including influenza A viruses. There are also several proposed novel approaches in development. The most promising existing approach is real-time fluorescent PCR analysis in a portable format using exquisitely sensitive and specific primers and probes. The potential for reliable and rapid early-responder detection approaches are described, as well as the most promising platforms for using real-time PCR for avian influenza, as well as other potential bioweapon agents.

Current State of Molecular Diagnostics

Homeland defense has become a new item on everyone’s budget request list—including the agricultural world. According to congressional testimonies by D.A. Henderson (2001) and others, rapid detection of introduced biological agents is a critical component in protecting human lives, along with rapid development of vaccines and antimicrobials. While we are all aware that profit margins in poultry production scarcely allow for the kinds of expensive molecular detection equipment that are affordable in the world of human health, the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) as a diagnostic tool has been well established among poultry health professionals for many years (American Association of Avian Pathologists, 1992). Several producers now have their own diagnostic capabilities that include routine PCR analysis for many poultry pathogens. As the market for sophisticated portable detection devices that employ PCR becomes greater, the price of on-site detection for agricultural pathogens will come down. Consequently, it is reasonable to pursue development of detection reagents for high-profile poultry pathogens, particularly the rapidly spreading respiratory pathogens. During an outbreak of a foreign animal disease such as highly pathogenic avian influenza, time is a critical factor in the extent of containment of the disease and the assessment of contamination of surrounding poultry operations and wild bird populations. Fluorescence-based PCR detection can use a single platform for detection of a host of pathogens. Once the

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