Modest Gains Against Ever-Present Bioterrorism Threat

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 3, 2008

In the past seven years, the federal government has spent more than $57 billion to shore up the nation's bioterrorism defenses, stockpiling drugs, ringing more than 30 American cities in a network of detectors and boosting preparedness at hospitals.

The result: modest gains, at best, toward preventing another attack similar to the one in 2001, in which anthrax bacteria killed five people and sickened 17, experts and government officials agree.

"The threat of bioterrorism has not subsided," while the challenge of predicting or preventing a major biological attack remains "daunting," Robert Hooks, the Homeland Security Department's deputy assistant secretary for weapons of mass destruction and biodefense, told a House panel two weeks ago.

"The potential for something to happen is much greater now than it was in 2001, simply because of developments of technology and education," D.A. Henderson, who was principal science adviser for public health preparedness to then-Health and Human Services secretary Tommy G. Thompson, said in an interview.

The government has not developed a general-use anthrax vaccine. A new generation of sensors that would sniff out threats more quickly has been delayed. A coordinated plan to respond to a widespread outbreak still doesn't exist. And the rapid increase in the number of researchers registered to work with biological agents, now 15,000 people, has come without enough oversight.

"We may be putting dangerous pathogens in the hands of people who would deliberately cause harm. We may also be putting them in the hands of people who may inadvertently or unintentionally take steps to put large numbers of people at risk," said Elisa D. Harris, senior research scholar at the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland.

One cause is the government's difficulty organizing itself. Since 2003, for instance, management of both the stockpile of medications that would be used in a disaster and the National Disaster Medical System, the federal government's disaster health-care responders, has been shifted from HHS to DHS and back.

A significant bright spot, many agree, is the dramatic improvement in government preparations to respond to threats such as smallpox, botulism, plague and other biological agents. The Strategic National Stockpile, an emergency cache of critical pharmaceuticals that can be sent within 12 hours to counter outbreaks, has been greatly expanded, said Michael T. Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.

The stockpile, details of which are classified, has 60 million treatment courses of antibiotics for anthrax and pneumonic plague, according to a senior federal official with responsibility for bioterrorism response. About 300 million doses of smallpox vaccine can also be shipped.

"If smallpox returned today, we could contain it and minimize the danger very quickly. I could not have said that in 2001," Osterholm said. The anthrax attack "was a very important event in the world of bioterrorism preparedness," he added. "It did finally wake people up to what bioterrorism could do in this country and in the world."

The Bush administration has dedicated $57 billion for bioweapons, prevention and defense through fiscal 2009, according to the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. That includes a $9 billion increase next year for research and development of countermeasures such as vaccines.

The administration has tried to get its primary vaccine program, BioShield, back on track. The HHS in 2006 killed the two-year-old program's largest component, an $877.5 million contract to develop a new anthrax vaccine and last year canceled a project to develop radiation exposure drugs.

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