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Senate Panel Frets Over Bioterror Preparedness Six Years After Anthrax Attacks

Six years after a series of deadly anthrax attacks on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, members of a Senate committee expressed concern Tuesday that the government still lacks a coherent strategy for preventing and combating exposure to the deadly bacterium.

Everyone talks about what keeps you up at night post-9/11, said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, I-Conn., chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. This keeps me and a lot of other people up at night, for reasons we discussed: the threats of bringing biological agents into the country or actually preparing them here and then the propensity they have to multiply and spread to devastating consequences.

Tara O Toole, director of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, said, In 2005, the national intelligence report said they were most worried about a bioterrorism attack – they thought it was more likely than a nuclear attack. Those are the only two types that could destabilize the United States.

In 2001, five people around the country died from anthrax exposure.

Two anthrax-laced letters were sent to Capitol Hill. The first, to then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., was discovered Oct. 15, when an aide in his office opened one of the letters. Thirteen Senate and four House offices were contaminated.

Among those who died in the attacks were two postal workers at the Brentwood facility in Washington, who had been exposed to the letters sent to the Capitol.

Nearly 1,200 of about 4,000 who were tested for anthrax at the Capitol had to go on the aggressive antibiotic Cipro, some for as long as 100 days. The Hart Senate Office Building was closed until Jan. 22, 2002.

Vaccine Problems

The attacks prompted a push in Congress and the executive branch to develop vaccines against anthrax and to improve responses to future scares.

But no new anthrax vaccine has been developed since the halt to a 2004 contract that was intended to procure 25 million doses of an anthrax vaccine in two years for a national stockpile. The small biotechnology firm that got the contract, VaxGen, could not deliver on major milestones.

A report to the committee by the Government Accountability Office, released Tuesday, said more than $100 million per year could be lost as current anthrax vaccines in the national stockpile begin to expire; vaccines worth $12 million have already expired and cannot be used, according to the report.

Lieberman requested a lessons learned report from Gerald W. Parker, principal deputy assistant secretary of Health and Human Services for preparedness and response, who also testified at Tuesday s hearing.

It was not clear what, if any, conclusions about the flawed VaxGen contract could be applied to a future contract, said Keith Rhodes, chief technologist at the Center for Technology and Engineering, Applied Research and Methods at the GAO.

Lieberman suggested one solution would be to entice the nation s biggest pharmaceutical companies to become involved, since they could handle mass vaccine production easier than smaller companies like VaxGen.

But O Toole said the bioterror threat requires not just a vaccine, but a whole system of preparedness and response. Our narrow gauge and focus on some of these programs has also lead us to miss some opportunities, she said. It s going to take a long time, frankly, and a lot more money than what we ve invested at this time.

O Toole said the Biodefense Advanced Research and Development Authority passed last year by Congress is an attempt to fix various problems – but no money has been appropriated yet. That is sending, I think totally unintentionally, but very loudly, a message to the biotech and pharma companies in this game that Congress doesn t really take biodefense seriously.

Jay M. Cohen, Homeland Security undersecretary for science and technology, said the department is focused not only on vaccines but also on other projects such as Biowatch, an aerosol monitoring program of sensors in 30 major cities that alert if there are biological agents. There have been four million tests for anthrax and no false positives since the program was started in 2003, he said.

Cohen said his department also has been working on improving the first responders gear to combat possible exposure to these elements.

The department is also looking at using cell phones as sensors, Cohen said. Cell phones are now mini-computers, Cohen said. Everyone of us would have a sensor and would then report to 911 the location, the fact that there was a radiological or biological event.