Charging that the U.S. government is largely unprepared for a biological attack, Sen. John F. Kerry on Wednesday called for greater planning, more resources and increased international collaboration to help protect the nation from the threat of bioterrorism.
The presumptive Democratic candidate for president tied together the need for increased national security and an improved medical infrastructure, telling a polite audience that America’s hospitals and emergency rooms are “not as ready as they ought to be.”
Public health facilities are hampered in detecting or responding to a biological attack, he said during a panel discussion at the University of South Florida, because they are “staggering beneath the everyday burdens of a broken healthcare system.”
“I believe very deeply that we can be safer than we are today,” Kerry said. “I don’t believe we’re taking all the steps that are available to us. I don’t believe that we’re as safe as we ought to have been in the aftermath of Sept. 11.”
The Massachusetts senator said that he would make the prevention of bioterrorism a national priority and convene a meeting of experts within his first 100 days as president. Participants would be asked to create a comprehensive strategic plan to combat biological and chemical threats.
Kerry said he would also appoint a bioterrorism czar, beef up the public health system, establish a “meaningful” system to detect biological attacks and support research toward new vaccines and drugs to combat such threats. And, he said, he would seek to strengthen an international biological weapons ban by working with the British and other nations to add verification and inspections to the agreement, which he claimed the Bush administration has “specifically weakened.”
Dr. Raymond Zilinskas, senior scientist at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, said that Kerry’s approach is “pressing on the right buttons, but the question is, where’s the money going to come from?”
Zilinskas said the main biological threat comes from nature, not man, in the form of emerging or imported infectious diseases.
“That’s really a public health problem,” he said. “What you need to do -- and I think the United States has been doing since the Clinton administration -- is to improve the public health planning and response.”
Kerry spokesman David Wade said that some proposals would be paid for by eliminating the Bush administration’s tax cuts for Americans who earn more than $200,000 a year. Other elements would be financed through cuts in other federal programs.
The University of Southern Florida is home to the Center for Biological Defense, one of the first such institutions established nationally and funded by the U.S. Department of Defense. The Bush campaign pointed out that the center has received millions of dollars in federal contracts and research grants for the fight against bioterrorism.
Richard Falkenrath, a former member of the National Security Council speaking on behalf of the Bush campaign, said the administration began working on a comprehensive biodefense initiative the month after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
In addition, the Bush campaign noted that on Sept. 11, the smallpox vaccine was basically unavailable, while today vaccination is available to every American. However, distribution of the vaccine has been mired in controversy with concerns about side effects and the distribution system.
“Of all the issues that Sen. Kerry could campaign against the president on, this has to be his worst choice,” Falkenrath said. “As a senator, he has no record on it, no achievements, no speeches.”
Kerry will travel to Independence, Mo., today to deliver a major policy address on modernizing the military, the third and final speech of an 11-day focus on national security issues. Earlier this week, he talked about the need to keep the components of nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists.