- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 20, 2003

”The greatest threat of our age,” President Bush said in his remarks at London’s Whitehall Palace, “is nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons in the hands of terrorists.” That claim is supported by a soon-to-be released report by the U.N. al Qaeda and Taliban Sanctions Committee, which warns that it is “just a matter of time” before the terrorist group launches a chemical or biological attack. While the U.S. government has taken a number of needed steps toward meeting the threat of biological weapons, it still has a long way to go.

On Nov. 14, Homeland Security officials gave reporters a look at the BioWatch system. Designed to detect a biological weapons attack, the sensor network has been deployed in 31 major cities, including Washington. Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Parney Albright admitted that the system would not save everyone exposed to a biological weapon, but it still represents an important development that should be followed up on.

Earlier this week, scientists at the National Institutes of Health began the first human trial of an experimental vaccine against the Ebola virus. The vaccine, which was synthesized essentially from scratch, went from the lab to the clinic in just three years, thanks to the government’s burgeoning bioterrorism response programs.

Although the Ebola vaccine shows great promise, its trials are being handicapped by the same problem that has plagued the government’s smallpox vaccine program — a shortage of volunteers. More than 200 million doses of smallpox vaccine have been stockpiled and 190,000 have been distributed to the states. However, as of the end of last month, fewer than 40,000 individuals had been inoculated. “The fact is, it’s ceased,” the CDC’s director of smallpox preparedness, Ray Strikas, told USA Today. His claim was disputed by CDC Director Julie Gerberding, who noted that many improvements have been made in smallpox preparedness, ranging from better-equipped hospitals to better- educated clinicians. Her point that “preparedness is a dynamic process” is well taken, but the program still has fallen far short of expectations.

Clinicians must take most of the blame for this debacle. When Mr. Bush announced the inoculation program, first responders insisted they receive some liability protection. Although Congress responded with the Smallpox Emergency Personnel Protection Act of 2003, which Mr. Bush signed in April, they went on refusing anyway.

The situation is even more worrisome considering the speed with which scientists can synthesize viruses. Earlier this month, researchers at the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives announced that they had built a functional virus from off-the-shelf ingredients in just two weeks. The virus is innocuous to humans, and the team hopes to use the technology to create designer microbes that will assist in anything from cleaning up nuclear waste to capturing carbon dioxide. However, it is hard to miss the demonstration’s more ominous implications.

The government is doing well in some aspects of its bioterrorism preparedness and prevention programs, but it badly needs improvement in others. Legislators should keep a watchful eye on the bureaucracy to ensure that proper measures are taken.

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