Government Not Taking Necessary Steps to Prepare for Bioterrorism

By Eileen Sullivan

WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States isn’t prepared for a biological terrorist attack, a congressionally mandated panel said in a report.

The Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation gave the Obama administration a failing grade for its efforts to prepare for and respond to a biological attack, such as the release of deadly viruses or bacteria.

“Nearly a decade after Sept. 11, 2001 … and one month after the Christmas Day bombing attempt, the United States is failing to address several urgent threats, especially bioterrorism,” said former Sen. Bob Graham, chairman of the commission. “Each of the last three administrations has been slow to recognize and respond to the biothreat. But we no longer have the luxury of a slow learning curve, when we know al-Qaida is interested in bioweapons.”

Retired Air Force Col. Randy Larsen, the commission’s executive director, said the poor preparation for the swine flu epidemic in 2009 is proof that the country is not positioned to respond to something more serious. Larsen pointed to the early shortage of H1N1 vaccine despite a six-month warning from health officials that the disease would be potentially deadly.

No one in the Obama administration has taken the lead for protecting the country against bioterrorism, Larsen said.

“Especially troubling is the lack of priority given to the development of medical countermeasures — the vaccines and medicines that would be required to mitigate the consequences of an attack,” the report said.

The report recommended five steps the government should take to deal with the threat of bioterrorism:

  • Conduct a comprehensive review of the domestic program to secure dangerous pathogens.
  • Develop a national strategy for advancing the ability to conduct forensic analyses of bioterror attacks.
  • Tighten government oversight of laboratories that deal with dangerous pathogens.
  • Promote a culture of security awareness among scientists.
  • Enhance the nation’s rapid response plan to prevent biological attacks from inflicting mass casualties.

The commission was formed by Congress to evaluate the government’s readiness for a terror attack involving weapons of mass destruction. Its report follows a study released Monday that warned that al-Qaida is still pursuing technology to conduct a biological, chemical or even nuclear attack against the United States.

That study, released by Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, said al-Qaida’s “top WMD priority has been to acquire nuclear and strategic biological weapons.”

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

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