Wednesday, March 24, 2004
Bioterrorism remains a pressing threat for which America continues to be significantly unprepared, leading government officials and researchers meeting in Atlanta warned Tuesday.
Despite billions of dollars of government spending since the anthrax letter attacks of October 2001 killed five people and put more than 30,000 Americans on antibiotics, serious gaps remain in the United States' ability to bar access to dangerous organisms, detect attacks, protect citizens with drugs and vaccines, and limit economic damage, said participants in the Sam Nunn Bank of America Policy Forum at Georgia Tech.
"The biological threat is serious, it is real, it must be dealt with," said retired Gen. John Gordon, President Bush's assistant for homeland security. "There is nowhere where we are doing more right now, and nowhere in homeland security where we have further to go."
But for much of the population, bioterrorism has dropped low on the list of public concerns, fostering a false sense of security that must be addressed, others warned.
"Local leaders, the mayors and the governors who will be charged with bio response, are not persuaded that this is a serious threat or that it is their responsibility," said Dr. Tara O'Toole, director of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. "This is not on the public's political agenda."
Simultaneously, defense planners working on bioterror preparations since the anthrax crisis --- the first fatal bioterrorist attack on American soil --- have discovered that it is a task unlike any other, former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) said. Nunn chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee before leaving Congress in 1996 and now leads the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a venture co-founded with Ted Turner to research nuclear, chemical and biological weapon use.
"Unlike the nuclear threat, where nuclear materials are held either by government entities or by public utilities, biological pathogens and the equipment necessary to make biological weapons are routinely and legitimately, and in most cases beneficially, used throughout the pharmaceutical industry, the biotech industry and academic research centers on virtually every college campus in America," he said.
Businesses and universities must be brought into bioterror planning, the group emphasized: Not only because they may inadvertently offer access to potential biological-weapon materials, but because they are likely to bear the brunt of the economic damage and pressure on the health care system that would follow an attack. Without additional planning and investment, businesses, hospitals and local political systems are all likely to be overwhelmed, they warned. They cited low levels of funding for vaccine and antibiotic research and persistent overcrowding in city emergency departments as early warnings of the difficulties that would be faced if an attack came.
The meeting Tuesday was the seventh annual gathering, hosted in turn by Georgia Tech, Emory University and the University of Georgia, to bring together academic researchers, high-level members of government and businesses. Previous gatherings have examined globalization, defense and information security.
Business participation is vital to preparing adequately for bioterrorism, not least because major terrorist targets such as the World Trade Center have been workplaces, Nunn said in an interview Tuesday. He suggested major corporations will have to fold into their balance sheets both the cost of bioterror detection, such as biological weapon sensors on buildings, and the potential expense of caring for employees if a crisis occurs.
"If you look at the economic infrastructure in this country, the places that you would list as the most vulnerable to terrorism are mostly owned by businesses," he said.
ATLANTA - More than two years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, time has dulled the seriousness of a bioterrorism threat in some communities, which still are unprepared for a possible attack, health officials warned Tuesday.
"Local leaders in charge of bioterrorism response do not think this is a serious threat," said Dr. Tara O'Toole, chief executive officer and director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Center for Biosecurity. "It's very difficult for people to contemplate. But it's something we have to talk about.
"Bioterrorism and nuclear weapons are the only two ways that could take down the United States," O'Toole said. "This threat is not going away."
Some of the country's top bioterrorism experts discussed the status of country's bioterrorism preparedness Tuesday at a forum hosted by Former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
The United States has come a long way in working to protect its people, and the country's bioterrorism preparations started in 1999, well before the 2001 attacks, federal officials said. But they and other health officials say much more needs to be done and that businesses and outside groups can provide much help.
"I'm confident the American people are more secure and better prepared than ever before," said John Gordon, assistant to the President for Homeland Security. "We've done a great, great deal, but there's really much to do."
Many communities still don't have the staff or tools to handle sudden outbreaks of deadly disease such as smallpox, plague or anthrax. Health officials were shocked to find that many hospitals aren't involved with overall planning of bioterrorism responses, O'Toole said.
Much more money - possibly billions of dollars - is needed not only to bolster health departments but also spur research to create drugs and treatments against bioterrorist diseases, O'Toole added.
"We have a very empty cupboard in terms of the vaccines and medicines against them," she said. "We're not attacking the problem like it's a national security priority."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is using federal funding and training to make sure that communities can tackle both contagious diseases, like smallpox, and non-contagious ones, such as anthrax or botulism in food.
The country still has problems with being able to contain and control outbreaks, said Joseph Henderson, director of the CDC's Office of Terrorism Preparedness and Emergency Response.
"Complacency will kill us in time," Henderson said. "We need to find a way to move communities from a passive state to an active state."
The government also is trying to create tests that can rapidly detect the presence of major bioterrorism diseases such as smallpox or anthrax. Currently there are none.
False positives and long delays in existing tests can wreak economic havoc on areas during bioterrorism scares, Gordon said.
"Taking hours to read a sample just isn't good enough," Gordon said.