- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 30, 2001

A leading Republican senator says Congress needs to appropriate "at least $1 billion" to increase U.S. preparedness against potential biological attacks, an amount that would triple current spending for that purpose.
"Bioterrorism remains a significant threat to our nation," Sen. Bill Frist, a doctor and Tennessee Republican, said in a statement that followed the release of a General Accounting Office report on this issue.
The report found that more must be done to coordinate "fragmented" federal efforts for addressing bioterrorism and that state and local preparedness needs substantial bolstering.
The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, called poor training and planning "a major problem" especially among hospitals that would be on the front lines in a bioterrorist attack.
However, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson, in an interview to air tonight on CBS' "60 Minutes," insists the United States is prepared in the event of any kind of biological attack. That assertion was proven already, he says, by actions taken immediately after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
In the interview, Mr. Thompson points out that eight staging areas around the country are each stocked with 50 tons of medical supplies including vaccines, antibiotics, gas masks and ventilators that can be moved within hours to the site of a bioterrorist attack. What's more, Mr. Thompson says, 7,000 medical personnel are ready to respond to any such crisis, anywhere in the nation.
He notes that on Sept. 11, nine tractor-trailers loaded with medical supplies from one of those eight secret staging areas ferried the goods to New York "within seven hours."
Once it was determined that the attack in question was neither biological nor chemical, the tractor-trailers returned the goods to their secret staging area, Mr. Thompson said.
"We've got to make sure that people understand that they're safe and that we're prepared to take care of any contingency, any consequence that develops from any kind of bioterrorism attack," Mr. Thompson said in the "60 Minutes" interview.
But not everyone is so confident. A Newsweek poll released yesterday shows that many Americans are not yet convinced they would be protected against an attack from biochemical weapons. The poll of 1,000 adults found that nearly half 46 percent are not too confident that national and local governments in the United States are prepared to handle such an attack.
Mr. Frist, the ranking Republican on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions subcommittee on Public Health, requested the GAO study on bioterrorism last November. Its release comes as some are warning that biological agents such as viruses or bacteria could be the next terrorist weapon used by enemies of the United States.
Rep. Christopher Shays, Connecticut Republican, said he's convinced there will be such attacks. In an interview yesterday on CNN's "Saturday Edition," he said: "There will be attempts at biological, chemical, even, perhaps, nuclear or radioactive material attacks on the United States. That's the reality. It's not a question of if; it's a question of when, where and of what magnitude."
Last week, the government banned flights by crop-dusters for two days because of fears they might be used in a biological or chemical attack. That action followed reports that one of the suspects in the Sept. 11 attacks had been asking questions about crop-dusting aircraft, and after crop-dusting manuals were found in the possession of a potential suspect.
Mr. Frist noted that federal legislation authorizing the expansion of national, state and local efforts to detect and respond effectively to bioterrorism and other significant public health threats was signed into law last fall. "But we need to get the appropriations through," he said, adding:
"Our first step is to increase the visibility of our federal response by providing at least $1 billion in funding, including strengthening state and local surveillance and response capabilities. We must also ensure greater coordination across federal departments to establish a comprehensive, coordinated response."
The Bush administration is spending $347 million this year on bioterrorism initiatives.
* This report is based in part on wire service reports.

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