U.S. is unprepared for major bioterrorism attack, commission finds

By Joby Warrick and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 27, 2010

More than eight years after the deadly 2001 anthrax attacks, the United States is still unprepared to respond to the threat of large-scale bioterrorism, a congressionally appointed commission said Tuesday in a report that gave the government mixed grades overall for how it has protected Americans from weapons of mass destruction.

The report, which measured the government's performance in 17 key areas, gave the White House and Congress "F" grades for not building a rapid-response capability for dealing with disease outbreaks from bioterrorism, or providing adequate oversight of security and intelligence agencies.

Within hours of the report's release, the Obama administration revealed plans to fill gaps in the nation's public health defenses with a series of initiatives to be announced in Wednesday's State of the Union address. The proposals, which administration officials said had been in the works well before the report's findings were known, will seek to speed up delivery of drugs in the event of a major attack, addressing one of the principal shortcomings identified by the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism.

President Obama's speech will include a "call to action" to various government leaders to redesign the way medical countermeasures are mass produced, White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said. "The goal is a national capability for the rapid, reliable and affordable production of an array of medical countermeasures against public health threats."

The WMD panel cited the government's faltering response to the swine flu epidemic as evidence of a lack of preparedness for a large-scale crisis, adding that the blame for the failures is shared by various administrations and branches of government.

"Each of the last three administrations has been slow to recognize and respond to the biothreat," said former senator Bob Graham (D-Fla.), who co-chaired the panel along with former senator James M. Talent (R-Mo.). "But we no longer have the luxury of a slow learning curve when we know al-Qaeda is interested in bioweapons."

The panel's "report card" comes 13 months after the congressionally appointed body warned that a major attack using weapons of mass destruction somewhere in the world was "more likely than not" to occur by 2013, unless significant steps were taken.

The panel gave "A" grades for government programs that secured dangerous viruses and bacteria, and for the administration's reorganization of the National Security Council to better deal with WMD threats. The report cited the White House's efforts to strengthen international controls on nuclear technology and components, but said there had been "no equal sense of urgency displayed towards the threat of a large-scale biological weapons attack."

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