Yesterday, the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs held a hearing entitled, “Ten Years After 9/11 and the Anthrax Attacks: Protecting Against Biological Threats”. As stated by Chairman Lieberman in his opening remarks, the goal of the hearing was to examine whether the federal government “has developed the tools we need to respond effectively to a bioterror attack or naturally-occurring pandemic disease, to develop and disseminate vaccines and antibiotics, and to respond to the medical consequences that would result from such a biological disaster” since 2001. The government officials and biodefense experts that comprised the two panels agreed that the U.S. has made progress during the last decade, however, many deficits remain. Jeffrey Levi, Executive Director of Trust for America’s Health, also noted that some progress has eroded in recent years due to budget cuts, stating, “If another anthrax attack were to occur today, we may be better prepared than 10 years ago – but possibly not as well as three years ago.”
In addition to the need for adequate federal funding for biodefense, panelists discussed various ways to strengthen emergency preparedness and response capabilities. Dr. Robert Kadlec, Former Special Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Senior Director for Biological Defense Policy, stressed the need for more effective leadership in the biodefense arena. While leadership in the various agencies (HHS, DHS, DoD, USDA) is essential, he recommended the establishment of a new “head coach” in the White House to coordinate biodefense activities. This recommendation was echoed in the Bipartisan WMD Terrorism Research Center’s Bio-Response Report Card released last week, which designated leadership as one of three strategic national priorities for biodefense. The Report Card was frequently referenced by senators and panelists throughout the hearing.
Importantly, Dr. Kadlec and Dr. Tom Inglesby, CEO and Director of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, highlighted the need for Congress to pass the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Reauthorization Act this year; while a bill (H.R. 2405) has been introduced in the House, the Senate bill is still under development in the HELP Committee. This legislation is a key component of biodefense, and its passage is essential to the continued development and procurement of medical countermeasures, as well as surveillance activities and other preparedness efforts.
Despite the ongoing budget crisis, Chairman Lieberman emphasized the importance of continuing to invest federal funds in biodefense. He stated, “By any number of standards, this is a priority for us.” He went on to call biodefense a part of the Constitutional responsibility of Congress to ‘provide for the national defense.’” While it is clear that the Senate Homeland Security Committee understands the importance of federal support for biodefense, some Members of Congress have grown complacent about biodefense in the years following 9/11 and the anthrax attacks. Yet, the need for bio-response capabilities has only increased with time. As stated by Dr. Tara O’Toole, Under Secretary for Science and Technology at the U.S Department of Homeland Security, “The biothreat is real. We know our adversaries are pursuing biological weapons. The potency and accessibility of these weapons will increase as the bioscience revolution proceeds…The threat is not going to go away. It’s going to grow.”