- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 24, 2004

Experts have concluded a terrorist attack on New York City using a 12-kiloton nuclear device would kill 262,000 people.

The vast majority of these innocent victims, some 210,000 people, would suffer slow, agonizing deaths from the ravages of radiation sickness. An additional several hundred thousand victims would fall seriously ill from the radiation and fallout but would survive. Medical facilities would be overwhelmed — first by those who suffered direct injuries and then by the scores of people whose immune systems have been so irradiated they can no longer protect themselves from diseases like even the common cold.

The horror would be similar if the District of Columbia were the target. Along these same lines, a recent federal drill, called Scarlet Cloud, found a terrorist anthrax attack on major urban areas would kill hundreds of thousands of people. Sadly, in both these scenarios, the vast majority of these deaths are likely preventable, if only this nation would act now.

To effectively deal with the threats from weapons of mass destruction (WMD), we need to shift our strategic thinking. While we must continue relying on our intelligence agencies, military and domestic counterterrorism assets to detect and defeat attacks before they occur, these alone will not protect the American people.

We need to focus on new forms of deterrence and response, specifically medical countermeasures. We may not be able to prevent a terrorist from slipping a single nuclear device or a lone vial of smallpox into this nation. However, medical countermeasures offer a way to drastically reduce our enemies’ ability to hurt us.

The more diseases we can treat, the fewer risks we face. The better we can save lives after a nuclear attack, the less incentive a terrorist or rogue nation has to use such a device against us. Medical countermeasures are critical to the long-term security of our nation.

However, development of medical countermeasures is currently hamstrung by bad policy and fiscal constraints. On balance, there is shockingly little federal funding for new medical countermeasure drug development. Monies available come with so many federal strings attached that many pharmaceutical companies simply refuse to invest in this important field.

Moreover, the National Institute of Health (NIH) is now the lead agency on WMD drug development efforts. NIH is the world’s leader in research but has little experience in drug development.

And there are no assurances if corporations develop these drugs the government will buy them. Unlike most drugs, there is no massive private-sector market for medical countermeasure drugs until it is too late. Along these same lines, we would have precious few tanks or aircraft carriers if the government stopping buying them up front, at the development stage, well in advance of any specific conflict. The same economic dynamic is at work here.

To help address this situation, President Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address proposed the Bioshield Bill, which would increase and streamline federal assistance for developing drugs to combat WMDs. The bill was hailed as a centerpiece of the president’s War on Terror.

However, a year later, the Senate still has not passed this vital bill. Oddly, while the bill seems to have overwhelming congressional support, it is nowhere on the legislative calendar.

Because of this, Americans remain needlessly at risk. Now the development and deployment are being delayed of promising treatments for threats ranging from anthrax to post-nuclear-attack radiation sickness.

At a recent homeland security meeting on medical countermeasures, a company that has been working with the federal government to develop anthrax-specific antibiotic said its efforts to produce that drug have slowed because the company is hesitant to invest in the necessary production facilities until Bioshield passes and funding is secure.

Another drug being developed by a small, cutting-edge biotech firm, Hollis-Eden, has shown the ability in primate testing to dramatically increase post-nuclear attack survival rates. If approved, this drug could save hundreds of thousands of lives in a nuclear attack on a major city. Had the federal government moved expeditiously, this nuclear countermeasure would already be fully tested and stockpiled. However, the drug has been unnecessarily delayed for more than two years.

Congress must now pass and fully fund the Bioshield program. Beyond that, we should launch the equivalent of a medical Manhattan project to develop vaccines and treatments for combating weapons of mass destruction. Every answer we find for a disease or threat would literally take a weapon out of terrorists’ hands.

In addition to buying Americans peace of mind, this effort could offer substantial benefits for mainstream medicine. along these same lines, penicillin, which ushered in a new medical era, was first developed to protect our troops in World War II.

With the enormous challenges we face in preventing a terrorist from smuggling a weapon of mass destruction into this country, finding the right pound of cure may be all that stands between us and a terrorist attack that would eclipse even the horrors of September 11, 2001.

Robert Housman is a lawyer who focuses on homeland security. He is a co-author of the “Homeland Security Law Handbook.”

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