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Bioterrorism – Are We Ready (Yet)?

More than five years after the Sept. 11 attacks , the government cannot show how the $5 billion given to public health departments has better prepared the country for a bioterrorism attack or flu pandemic.

Soon after the attacks of September 11, 2001 the United States suffered through a second terrorist incident that kept the Nation on edge. These attacks revealed gaps in the nation's preparedness for public health emergencies resulting from bioterrorism. Among the tools needed for responding to such emergencies are vaccines to prevent the spread of disease; tests for rapid diagnosis; and therapeutics, including drugs, for treatment. Please refer to this GAO Report, Biological Research Laboratories: Issues Associated with the Expansion of Laboratories Funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

From between late September and through October, a series of letters were sent to various media outlets (including American Media in Florida and the offices of Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw) and then private individuals like Ottilie Lundgren. http://www.fbi.gov/anthrax/amerithraxlinks.htm The Amerithrax Case is still open, and while Steven Hatfill was named by then Attorney General John Ashcroft as a “person of interest,” to date, no one has been arrested for the series of anthrax-laced letters.

Five years after the anthrax attacks that killed five people, the FBI is now convinced that the lethal powder sent to the Senate was far less sophisticated than originally believed, widening the pool of possible suspects in a frustratingly slow investigation. The finding, which resulted from countless scientific tests at numerous laboratories, appears to undermine the widely held belief that the attack was carried out by a government scientist or someone with access to a U.S. biodefense lab.

Before this, probably the most visible examples of bioterrorism in the United States was in 1984 followers of Bhagwan Shri Rashneesh sprinkled homegrown salmonella bacteria on supermarket produce, door handles, and restaurant salad bars in Oregon. While nobody died, more than 750 people become seriously ill. The poisonings were preparation for attacks meant to keep voters home during a local election in which a cult member was running for a county judgeship.

A decade later, 1994, federal authorities charged two members of an anti-government militia, the Minnesota Patriots Council, with planning to use biological weapons for terror attacks. The men were stockpiling ricin, a biological toxin. Both were convicted.

The record shows that the U.S. has had numerous warnings and alerts, some prior to September 11th and yet, there remains a strong sense that we are not prepared to respond should a scaled chemical or biological attack actually occur.

In May of 1999, Robert M. Burnham, then the Chief, Domestic Terrorism Section of the F.B.I., made a statement in front of the United States House of Representatives Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. In that statement he commented that:

· WMD type cases had steadily increased.

· FBI cases opened: 37 in 1996; 74 in 1997; 181 in 1998; 123 in 1999…anthrax prominent in ‘98 & ‘99.

· Interest in biological agents continues to grow… intelligence indicates foreign & domestic terrorist groups have an interest in acquiring biological materials and knowledge.

· “How to" literature available over the Internet.

In July 2003, published a report from the the Partnership for Public Service ,
Homeland Insecurity - Building the Expertise to Defend America from Bioterrorism

· Bio-terror threat growing & represents a security threat

· Response capacity shrinking…1/2 of the federal scientific and medical personnel in bio-defense to be eligible to retire by 2008

· Threat from biological weapons grows larger and more pressing as scientific and technological advances in biology expand.

· al Qaeda has been pursuing plans and materials to develop biological weapons…the possibility of a bio-terrorist attack even more deadly than September 11

· Shortage of scientific and medical personnel jeopardizes federal bio-defense agencies to counter a BW attack

· Local first responders, regional vaccine stockpiling, and bio-weapon monitors in big cities have attracted funding

· Fed. resources needed to respond to a wide-spread terror attack, such as aerosolized/weaponized anthrax

· Conduct an audit of US bio-defense work force and create a single point of accountability to monitor federal bio-defense staffing.

In November 2005 when he announced the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza Preparedness and Response President Bush said, "Today, I am announcing key elements of that strategy. Our strategy is designed to meet three critical goals: First, we must detect outbreaks that occur anywhere in the world; second, we must protect the American people by stockpiling vaccines and antiviral drugs, and improve our ability to rapidly produce new vaccines against a pandemic strain; and, third, we must be ready to respond at the federal, state and local levels in the event that a pandemic reaches our shores,"

So, how far have we come? It has been said that even with the best of intentions, Intelligence and Law Enforcement Agencies can "predict probabilities" but they can't be sure if a terrorist attack using chemical or biological toxins will occur. And if it does occur, they can't be sure what toxin will be used, even if you focus on the “most likely suspects" (According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases , Category A pathogens include anthrax, smallpox, plague, botulism, tularemia, and viral hemorrhagic fevers; Category B pathogens such as hepatitis A virus and salmonella; Category C agents are things like Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever virus and multidrug-resistant tuberculosis)

Where did the $5 billion go and are our communities better prepared to deal with a biological (or chemical) attack? That is the question raised in U.S. Struggles With Bioterror Defenses

Since September 11th the amounts of money send to state and local health departments for emergency preparedness was increased nearly ten-fold. The government’s allocation for bioterrorism preparedness in 1999 was $40.7 million to the states. This grew to $950 million in 2002. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was assigned the responsibility of monitoring the effectiveness of this funding, but has found the task difficult.

"We're not able to demonstrate accountability," said Craig Thomas, chief of the CDC office that evaluates and monitors public health departments. "It's not just accountability to the CDC. It's accountability to your community. It's accountability to your local stakeholders and the people who fund you as well." "The difficulty comes down to, how do you measure (improvement), how do you quantify that, so you have something you can track over time, something you can use to identify gaps that have to be filled," said the CDC's Dr. Richard Besser. He oversees the Office for Terrorism Preparedness and Emergency Response.

In a newsrelease in 2004, Biodefense for the 21st Century it is clear that biodefense is a National priority. A great deal of money has been spent on bio-defense (or bio-preparedness). A little more than a year ago, a fact sheet from the Department of Health and Human Services lists its Biodefense Accomplishments , including the increases in budgets.

The question remains, are we ready?

This entry is related to Preparing for a Natural Disaster of Pandemic Proportions

Other references for this are:


Biological and Chemical Weapons Control


1 Comment

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