U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson today urged European and other governments to step up efforts to combat the threat of a bioterrorist attack, saying the United States was "further along" in that field and calling on the world community to "get better prepared."
Thompson said in an interview that he will exhort health ministers of 19 other countries to take additional precautions against bioterrorism when he meets them Sunday at an international economics conference in this Swiss mountain resort.
He said the threat of biological or chemical attacks in Europe has been highlighted by the arrest last week of suspected terrorists in Italy and Spain.
They have been linked by authorities to a group seized in Britain in early January in possession of the toxin ricin. Those arrested in Spain allegedly were planning a chemical attack
"All I'm suggesting is they should be more vigilant and devote more resources to prepare for a biological attack," given the threat "evidenced by the arrests just recently," Thompson said.
Thompson is not alone in pressing European governments to do more to guard against bioterrorism. Doctors and other experts in Europe have expressed concern in the past year that authorities were moving too slowly to prepare for attacks using viruses or other biological agents.
The problems range from language barriers that hampered emergency crews during a simulated bioterrorist attack in October to delays in purchasing equipment and secrecy about national stockpiles of vaccines.
Thompson pointed to steps that the United States has taken -- but other countries have not -- to prepare for a biological attack. He cited the procurement of enough vaccine against smallpox for the entire population, and the allocation of $1.1 billion for improved public health facilities and $1 billion for research into smallpox, anthrax, botulism, plague and other diseases.
"Everybody would have to admit we're further along than any of the other countries," Thompson said, because the United States has been working on it longer and has invested more money in the effort.
"Ours is a model. I'm not saying ours is the best," Thompson said. "As a world community, we should get better prepared."
Thompson said he would raise these issues at the meeting Sunday of health ministers of the G-20 group, which includes the G-8 industrialized countries plus 12 other nations, including many with less-developed economies. The meeting is part of the annual World Economic Forum here.
"We've got to work in a cooperative manner," Thompson said.