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Biological Terrorism; Ready or Not

October 3, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT

KWAME HOLMAN: Three weeks after the terrorist attacks stunned the nation, a Senate Appropriations Committee held a hearing to determine how prepared the country would be to respond to a biological or chemical attack. Senator Bill Frist, a physician, testified.

SEN. BILL FRIST: We are all walking a fine line in terms of being both… The potential of being an alarmist, but at the same time laying out the information that is important for us to recognize in terms of our vulnerability as a nation and as a people. The threat is real; there is no question about that. The overall probability is low, nobody can get a number. There is uncertainty around the number, but it’s low. Yet it is increasing and given the events of September 11, I believe they are increasing quite dramatically. The threat is increasing if we look. Osama bin Laden has had public pronouncements that acquisition of biological and biochemical weapons of mass destruction are a religious duty of his; we know that now. We have not focused on it, but we know that now.

KWAME HOLMAN: Frist also said the public health system– the first line of defense against a viral or bacterial attack– has serious gaps.

SEN. BILL FRIST: I think our most significant failure in this country as we look at this coherent strategy of prevention, of preparedness and response, is the lack of investment in our public health infrastructure. Our public health infrastructure is the front line. Without the front line, nothing else can click, nothing else can work.

KWAME HOLMAN: Against that backdrop, Tommy Thompson, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, tried to reassure members the government is ready.

TOMMY THOMPSON: Let me characterize our status this way: We are prepared to respond. But there is more we can do, and must do, to strengthen our response. We have needs in the short-term and in the long-term. At HHS, we are aggressively pursuing those needs so we can build the strongest, most coordinated response possible to a biological attack.

KWAME HOLMAN: Thompson also tried to reassure a nervous public.

TOMMY THOMPSON: People, Americans should not be scared into believing they need to buy gas masks, and people should not be frightened into hoarding medicine and food. There is nothing that we know of that would warrant such actions.

KWAME HOLMAN: Thompson said federal agencies already have begun coordinating emergency plans with state and local governments, among other things, to train local physicians to recognize anthrax and other illnesses caused by such agents.

TOMMY THOMPSON: In just this past week we accelerated the production of a new smallpox vaccine. The new vaccine and 40 million doses were to be delivered in the year 2005 — now will be delivered in the year 2002.

KWAME HOLMAN: Thompson said the administration will request $800 million this year for bioterrorism response. But Congress already is considering two bills that would put such funding at about $1.4 billion. Both bills would provide greater training and more equipment to local doctors and hospitals to help recognize a biological or chemical outbreak, improve emergency response capabilities, and increase the national pharmaceutical stockpile. The proposed funding levels indicate Congress is willing to spend what it takes to fight bioterrorism. Another indication came in this exchange between Thompson and West Virginia’s Robert Byrd– chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee– about which states employ an epidemiology specialist to track potential outbreaks.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: How many states do not have at least one?

TOMMY THOMPSON: I would think there are 13 at the present time.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: Including West Virginia?

TOMMY THOMPSON: I’m not sure about that, but I can check on that and get back to you. I understand that West Virginia does not have one.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: How much money do you need? (Laughter)

KWAME HOLMAN: But Byrd also words of caution for Thompson.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: In a recent media interview, you said that the U.S. Government is "prepared to take care of any contingency, any consequence, that develops from any kind of bioterrorism attack." That’s a pretty broad statement.


SEN. ROBERT BYRD: Do you stand by that today?

TOMMY THOMPSON: I do. I’d like to clarify. I said we could respond. Evidenced by what we did on September 11th, I am absolutely assured that we can respond to any contingency and control it.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: That’s a broad statement. And Washington is so full of hyperbole and broad statements, we know, we should know because we make them too. I tell you, that’s a bad thing to do, if we mislead, and I know you don’t intend to. I know you don’t intend to.

TOMMY THOMPSON: I’m telling the American people so that people understand that we are prepared.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: Well, I just don’t believe that. And I say that to you very kindly.

KWAME HOLMAN: Thompson also advised the public to be vigilant, including seeking medical attention for any mysterious symptoms of illness.