In October of 2001, at least five letters containing the deadly poison anthrax were successfully sent through the mail in the United States. Within a month, more than 125,000 suspicious powders had turned up in mail across the country, putting immense pressure on government officials to keep the public safe. In response, state disease control laboratories performed more than a million tests to identify which letters posed real threats, without a single false positive.
Laboratories could not have responded so effectively to biological or chemical terrorist threats during the 1990s and before. State disease control officials had been underfunded and overworked for years, and were often using old equipment that was not reliable, let alone suitable for a large-scale response to serious public health threats. The centralized federal lab system was ill suited for response to epidemics and chemical or biological terrorism. Infection could start in one location and spread very rapidly, leaving little time to ship samples to labs located several states away.
In 1999, the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) proposed the Laboratory Response Network (LRN), a new partnership between state and federal governments. The CDC allocated some of its funds to state labs, and provided training in how to deal with large-scale epidemics. State labs used federal resources to bolster their ability to respond to local threats, and to form a network of communications that would allow for a nationwide response to biological threats. The LRN began with very little funding, as the CDC carefully built capacity in 61 labs across the country by 1999.
Once the LRN had grown to its full capacity, it was quickly put to a dramatic test by the anthrax letters; its success there led to a large expansion of the program. The network now consists of 138 laboratories, and its capabilities have been expanded to deal with biological, chemical, environmental, food, and animal-borne threats. It is capable of responding to terrorist threats, but it is also suitable to control modern epidemics. The LRN played a key role in identifying and containing the SARS virus in 2003 and is currently preparing to deal with potential outbreaks of avian flu.
The LRN has already been used to bolster several other federal testing programs, including anthrax screening for the Postal Service and Homeland Security initiatives promoting early detection of airborne biological threats. It is a key component of overall terrorism prevention at special events. In the wake of the program's success, several other countries, including Israel, Canada, Australia, the Philippines, and the U.K., have worked to create Laboratory Response Networks of their own, and the World Health Organization may sponsor a worldwide LRN based on the US model.