- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 15, 2006

Five years ago this week, a mysterious package unleashed anthrax spores in a U.S. Senate building where I have offices. Around the country, 22 people became ill and seven died in connection with the mail-borne anthrax attacks over six weeks. Who launched the attacks, and for what purpose, remains unknown.

Working with health officials, I spent weeks working to help the public understand the anthrax attacks. In their wake, I published a book on the threat of bioterrorism, and made combating major pandemic disease one of my top legislative priorities.

Congress has made significant progress since then: We’ve passed two major pieces of legislation and have vastly increased spending on measures to better prepare us for biological threats. I’m convinced, however, that we still haven’t done enough. Taking biological threats seriously will require continued strong leadership at the top, a federal office specifically designed to anticipate biological threats, and a flexible all-hazard response capability.

History reveals that pandemic disease has killed far more people than all the pitched battles all the world’s armies have ever fought. And with our speedy, efficient modern transportation networks, we can be virtually certain the next outbreak will hit many communities at the same time, plunging our country into chaos. This cries out for a federally led, ready response. We still don’t have one.

While the government has spent the last five years building drug stockpiles and specially trained biological hazard teams, I’ve seen little evidence we can successfully pre-empt or combat a major pandemic.

Under existing plans, efforts to treat the sick and stop the contagion will depend on the competence of local governments and health departments. While many local health departments do excellent work, some don’t. Right now, it is unclear who will be accountable if one poorly run health department allows a pandemic to spiral out of control. This needs to change.

We need a flexible, high powered federal government capacity that can coordinate all resources to confront threats of biological disease. Right now, major biological threats float in and out of the public consciousness: Avian flu got a lot of attention earlier this year but vanished from the public’s radar screen when it failed to spread to the United States. Sens. Richard Burr, Mike Enzi and I have written a bill to fill an important gap in our current capacity — a new Biological Advanced Research and Development Agency — to increase resources devoted to pandemic threats and speed new treatments to market. Along with this new agency, the bill would also make important changes to existing programs to ensure accountability and improve our response capability.

We need to increase the resources we devote to threats that have only begun to emerge. Right now, the great bulk of the defenses we’ve built are oriented toward known threats: pathogens we’ve dealt with before and think we might deal with again. But we have very little in the way of the advanced research and response capacity that would let scientists and public health workers quickly respond to a threat nobody predicted. We need to move towardsbuilding what those who deal with natural disasters call “all hazard” response capacity — the ability to deal with any type of threat ,including an unexpected one.

We might, for example, work on developing a broad-spectrum antiviral drug that interferes with the way all viruses replicate. Such a drug could defeat a great many different viruses with one pill the same way antibiotics can defeat almost all bacteria. Unless we begin developing a more flexible capacity, we will always live in the shadow of pandemic.

Five years after the anthrax attacks, we’ve taken some very important steps toward preparing ourselves for biological threats. But the most important step, the fundamental rethinking of our response, remains ahead of us.

Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, is majority leader of the U.S. Senate.

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