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U.S. Spends $28B on Biodefense, but Problems Persist

Global Security Newswire

The $28 billion spent on biological defense by the U.S. federal government has boosted the nation’s protection against a terrorist attack but has not eliminated all vulnerabilities, the McClatchy News Service reported yesterday (see GSN, July 20).

“The U.S. does not yet have a coherent biodefense strategy … that takes into account the full spectrum of possible bioweapons agents, including engineered threats,” Tara O’Toole, co-founder of the University of Pittsburgh Center for Biosecurity, told lawmakers recently (see GSN, April 7).

The United States has taken a number of steps since the Sept. 11 attacks and anthrax mailings of 2001. Filters that would eliminate potentially lethal microbes have been installed at roughly a dozen buildings in Washington, D.C., including FBI headquarters and the World Bank. The BioWatch program (see GSN, March 25, 2005), at a cost of $82 million annually, collects air samples each day in dozens of U.S. cities.

The United States has prepared a stockpile of 5 million doses of anthrax vaccine and 300 million doses of smallpox vaccine. It has deployed hundreds of air monitors, funded testing laboratories in all states and trained more than 174,000 emergency responders.

“I think we’ve made very significant progress from where we were in 2001,” said John Vitko, who heads the Homeland Security Department’s biological countermeasures unit.

“I think we’re light years ahead of where we were pre-9/11,” said Michael Osterholm, a biological weapons expert and epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota.

Others expressed continued concerns, McClatchy reported.

The focus on anthrax and smallpox — the “low-hanging fruit” of biological threats — was reasonable but does not address all dangers, said Brad Smith, a senior associate at the Center for Biosecurity.

“It is very clear that the technology is to the point now where fairly modestly trained and educated individuals could do a lot of harm if they wanted to create a biological weapon,” he said.

Within the next two years, there could be technology able to artificially create the smallpox virus, according to U.S. intelligence.

The effectiveness of air filters remains a question, and their cost could make wide deployment financially prohibitive. The government would have to spend tens of billions of dollars to place filters in all 8,920 federal buildings, according to General Services Administration architect Wade Belcher.

Even with early detection and vaccine stockpiles, the government is not yet prepared to ensure the countermeasures reach the public following an incident, Smith said.

“We’re very vulnerable, but we’re in better and better shape, because at least we’re paying attention to it,” said Representative John Linder (R-Ga.) (Greg Gordon, McClatchy News Service/StarTribune.com, Aug. 8).