The United States remains woefully unprepared to protect the public against terrorists wielding biological agents despite dramatic increases in biodefense spending by the Bush administration and considerable progress on many fronts, according to government officials and specialists in bioterrorism and public health.
Although administration officials have spoken at times about bioterrorism's dangers, they are more alarmed than they have signaled publicly, U.S. officials said. As President Bill Clinton did, President Bush and Vice President Cheney have thrust themselves into the issue in depth.
Chris Schmidt, an emerging infectious disease fellow in the poxvirus section of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, shows the use of a biohazard suit.
(Ric Feld -- AP)
Charts: Federal spending on biodefense grew rapidly after 2001, with large portions going to NIH and Bioshield program. Also, smallpox vaccination efforts fall well short of goal.
_____From This Series_____
Impervious Shield Elusive Against Drive-By Terrorists (The Washington Post, Aug 8, 2004)
U.S. Eyes Money Trails of Saudi-Backed Charities (The Washington Post, Aug 19, 2004)
In Search Of Friends Among The Foes (The Washington Post, Sep 11, 2004)
From a Virtual Shadow, Messages of Terror (The Washington Post, Oct 2, 2004)
Moroccans Gain Prominence in Terror Groups (The Washington Post, Oct 14, 2004)
About This Series|
Three years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the U.S. government has undertaken extensive efforts to root out Islamic terrorists around the world and to defend the U.S. homeland. These articles are part of a series that considers the elusive nature of the threat and the problems authorities confront in battling it. Today's stories examine the difficulty of devising defenses and responses to bioterrorism. Previous parts of this series can be found at www.washingtonpost.com/nation.
"There's no area of homeland security in which the administration has made more progress than bioterrorism, and none where we have further to go," said Richard A. Falkenrath, who until May was Bush's deputy homeland security adviser and is now a fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Unlike many other areas of domestic defense, which are centralized in the Department of Homeland Security, responsibility for biodefense is spread across various agencies. It is coordinated by a little-known White House aide, Kenneth Bernard, whose power is relatively limited.
Biological and nuclear attacks rank as officials' most feared types of terrorist attacks. Because of the technical difficulties in creating such weapons, they reckon the chances of a devastating attack are currently small. But the consequences of a big biological strike could be epically catastrophic, and rapid advances in science are placing the creation of these weapons within the reach of even graduate students, they said.
Given the escalating risks, many public health and bioterrorism experts, members of Congress and some well-placed Bush administration officials express mounting unease about what they believe are weaknesses in the nation's biodefenses:
The great majority of U.S. hospitals and state and local public health agencies would be completely overwhelmed trying to carry out mass vaccinations or distribute antidotes after a large biological attack. Hobbled by budget pressures and day-to-day crises, many health agencies say they cannot comply with federal officials' urgent demands that they gear up for bioterrorism.
Overlapping jurisdiction among federal agencies working on biodefenses -- including the departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services -- leads to confusion inside and outside government about who is in charge of preparations for, and response to, bioattacks.
In tabletop exercises, missteps by top administration officials reveal that more work is required to plan how the government should communicate with the public after an attack and manage the potential flight of perhaps millions of people from city centers.
Despite considerable progress since the 2001 attacks, the National Institutes of Health, which has the lead role in researching biological warfare vaccines and antidotes, remains largely wedded to its traditional role of doing basic research and is not producing enough new drugs. Large drug firms with track records of developing medications have little interest in making bioterrorism vaccines and treatments.
Because of the scientific complexities, no technology exists to detect a biological attack as it occurs. Under the most advanced current program, called Biowatch, technicians remove filters from air-sniffing units in about 30 cities once a day and carry them to labs for computerized analysis in search of about 10 biological agents.
In this way, a biological attack could be discovered within a day. Without Biowatch, no one would know about a smallpox attack, for example, until the first symptoms appeared about 10 days later.
Though it clearly has far to go, the Bush administration has sharply stepped up biodefense efforts. Spending has increased 18-fold since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, from $414 million in fiscal 2001 to a proposed $7.6 billion this year, according to a study by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Biosecurity Center.
Administration officials say that in each area where critics note weaknesses, they already have made great progress. "There is no comparison between where we are today and where we were before 9/11," said Stewart Simonson, assistant HHS secretary for public health emergency preparedness. "On 9/11 we had 90,000 doses of smallpox vaccine ready to go. Today we have 300 million."