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US unprepared for bioterrorism

resize.jpgBioterrorism is a significant threat to US citizens — and one which the nation is sorely unprepared to face, according to an assessment released today by the Bipartisan WMD Terrorism Research Center, a non-profit bipartisan research organisation based in Washington, DC.

The Center’s ‘report card’ grades the US on eight response categories, ranging from detection and diagnosis, to the availability of medical countermeasures like vaccines, to the identification of perpetrator of an attack. Response to both contagious and non-contagious agents are considered for each category and for threats ranging from small scale incidents, such as the 2001 anthrax attacks, to world-wide global catastrophes (think Contagion).

The result: The Center issued 15 F’s,15 D’s, 7 C’s and 8 B’s in its assessment of bio-defense capabilities. There were no A’s.

At a press briefing, the Center’s leadership said that in tough economic times, the most effective way to improve would be to focus on responses to the middle range of attack sizes considered, where the US currently earns a D in most categories.

“We all realise we are working in a fiscally constrained environment here so if you focus on the F grades, you could pour a lot of money down that hole,” said Randy Larsen, CEO of the WMD Center and a retired US Air Force colonel. “If we work to make D’s into C’s that is the best strategy [for the greatest] return on investment of our dollars and the most increased security for our families, our communities and our nation,” he said.

The WMD Center grew from the now expired Congressional Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, which had published two earlier assessments on risks from weapons of mass destruction. The WMD Commission’s 2010 report card concluded that the US had failed to mitigate the risk of a biological attack inflicting mass causalities.

Recent advances in life science have also exacerbated the problem, said Jim Talent, a former Republican senator from Missouri who is vice chairman of the Center’s leadership team. “It’s getting easier every day to isolate a small amount of pathogen, to weaponise it, to transport it and to deploy it,” said Talent.

To help address the low report card scores, the Center recommended the creation of a federal position with bioterrorism response as its sole focus. Center Chairman Bob Graham, a former Florida senator and Talent’s Democratic counterpart said the role should be filled by “an individual who can influence actions by a multiplicity of agencies.”

Unlike the response to the risk of a nuclear attack, which is almost entirely under the auspices of the federal government, the response to biological threats involves federal, state and local governments, as well as private entities, said Graham.

Another recommendation stemming from the report is increased investment in ‘purpose-driven science’. This should include research to develop new countermeasures like vaccines, determining correct dosages for children and pregnant women, improving environmental remediation, and bioforensics research.

“There’s one category that received an F across the board,” said Graham, “and that was being able to determine the source of that attack.”

Because the science of microbial forensics “is immature and requires major improvements,” the center recommended that deficits in this area be examined in detail by an independent organisation such as the National Academy of Sciences.

Image credit: Georgia National Guard (Flickr)


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