On its face, it’s just another Washington dispute about money. But a move by House Democrats to strip $2 billion from reserve funds for bioterrorism and pandemic flu — without objection from President Obama — has infuriated some of the country’s foremost bioterrorism experts.
It’s a symbol, they say, of how the Obama White House is failing to properly address the threat posed by a potential biological attack, which they say could kill 400,000 Americans and do $2 trillion in economic damage.
The probability of such an event is low, bioterrorism specialists acknowledge, but they say the failure to plan for it reflects the same lack of imagination that presaged the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005 and the ongoing gulf oil spill.
“I don’t think anybody who understands the urgency of bio-preparedness is happy with where we are right now,” said Jeff Runge, who was chief medical officer at the Department of Homeland Security from 2005 to 2008.
The $2-billion reduction in bioterrorism prevention and pandemic funds came in a House appropriations bill that passed July 2. Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.) added $10 billion to prevent teacher layoffs, and under budget rules he needed to find cuts elsewhere.
Among other things, he required the secretary of Health and Human Services to cut $2 billion from funds reserved for pandemic flu or bioterrorism drugs. On the block is Project BioShield, a pot of money designed to buy lifesaving drugs and vaccines in the event of a biological attack. The money was set aside as a guarantee to private companies that if they produced the medicines, government funds would be available to buy them.
The proposed cut is “an extremely negative development in our overall efforts to prepare not only for bioterrorism but for other biological events from nature,” said former Sen. Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat.
Obama named Graham to co-chair panels on the oil spill and the financial crisis. He also co-chaired the bipartisan Commission for the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction, which in January gave the federal government a grade of “F” for bioterrorism preparation. There have been few improvements since, he said.
If terrorists attacked a city today using anthrax or some other biological agent, “I think there would be tens if not hundreds of thousands of people unnecessarily killed,” Graham said. “We know what to do to reduce the impact of a biological attack, but thus far we have been unwilling to implement those steps.”
Graham said he would lobby the White House to restore the funds.
Nine years after envelopes of powdered anthrax killed five people and shut down the Capitol, the U.S. remains poorly equipped to distribute antibiotics in time to prevent mass deaths in the event of a large dispersal of the deadly pathogen, said Robert Kadlec, a physician and former Air Force special operations officer who was President George W. Bush’s bioterrorism advisor. Obama has not yet named his successor.
“It is incomprehensible to think that an administration and a Congress that is fighting terrorists in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen — some of whom are trying to obtain and use biological weapons against the U.S. — would eliminate monies dedicated to make us better prepared,” Kadlec said.
The BioShield fund was set up in 2004 with $5.6 billion to be spent over 10 years. So far, $2 billion has been spent.
Obey spokesman Ellis Brachman said, “It’s been nearly a year since any [money was spent] in the program, and in the meantime we’ve got to address the issue of teachers being laid off across the country.”
Stewart Baker, who was policy chief at the Department of Homeland Security from 2005 to 2009, agreed that the program had not been as effective as it needed to be, “but it’s more effective than not having any funding, which is sort of where we are now.”
The proposed cut “reflects a decision to focus on the immediate and to downplay the risk of a really disastrous attack, and I think that’s a mistake.”
The White House has threatened to veto the House bill — because it cut money from Obama’s education initiative, not because of the bioterrorism rescissions.
“BioShield has demonstrated limited success in providing incentive for private sector developers and has not provided a robust pipeline of medical countermeasures,” White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said in an e-mail.
Shapiro defended the Obama administration’s actions on bioterrorism. The White House is working on a plan to rapidly distribute drugs through the U.S. Postal Service in case of an attack, he said, and trying to boost development of new drugs and medicines to counteract biological weapons.
The immediate distribution of drugs is crucial to saving lives in an attack’s aftermath, and it’s one of the biggest problems, experts say. For example, most people could be saved after anthrax exposure if they could get antibiotics within 48 hours, but under the current scenario it likely would take several days, by which point tens of thousands would be seriously ill and hospitals would be overwhelmed, Kadlec says.
In the Bush administration, Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff proposed allowing first responders and Homeland Security employees to keep medical kits in their homes with antibiotics and other agents, but the Food and Drug Administration would not go along, Chertoff said recently. The FDA raised concerns about the overuse of antibiotics, though a 2006 study in St. Louis found that only 4 out of 4,000 people improperly took the pills.
Though the 2001 anthrax attacks have been attributed to a U.S. scientist who later killed himself, Al Qaeda ran a biological weapons program that was discovered only when U.S. troops invaded Afghanistan. The group continues to pursue one, wrote Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a former CIA agent who is a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, in a study this year.
“Clearly the threat and risks have not diminished,” said Rear Adm. W. Craig Vanderwagen, who was assistant secretary for public health emergency preparedness from 2007 to 2009. “And yet we’re undermining the ability to get the tools in hand that are needed.”