Is HSD unprepared for biodefense?

The Homeland Security Department "is not constructed properly" to counter biological terrorism, said Dr. Tara O'Toole, director of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies.

Biodefense, she said, "matters more than just about anything else because the number of potential weapons is growing exponentially."

O'Toole, a former Energy Department assistant secretary for environmental safety and health, spoke today at a Washington Post Co. briefing.

She said national policy-makers fail to understand the dangers from the prodigious pace of widely disseminated bioscience research. Stuck in a cold-war mind-set, they don't understand that terrorists can easily synthesize deadly viruses and weaponize anthrax spores in undetectable ways.

There are thousands of individuals with these skills, she said, and there are no technical barriers to manufacturing bioweapons, despite the FBI's statements in the wake of the anthrax attacks in the fall of 2001 that it would take the resources of a nation-state to make them.

O'Toole and her colleagues at the center are more and more convinced that "bioterror is the asymmetric threat of the 21st century," she said.

HSD is ill-prepared to come up with countermeasures, diagnostics, drugs and health care delivery for large numbers of sick people, O'Toole said. But if the government would "shift to advancing defense through R&D" by academic, pharmaceutical and biotech researchers, she said, enough would be learned within a quarter-century to defeat bioterror as well as wipe out infectious diseases and epidemics.

"We need to go bug-to-drug in weeks, not years," she said, but "no one at decision levels in HSD or the administration has a public-health background," and Senate majority leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), a physician, has been "distracted" by other duties.

She discounted the National Disaster Medical System, an older intergovernmental system supported by the Defense and Health and Human Services departments, saying, "There's no there there."

Advances in biotechnology are coming even faster than in IT, O'Toole said, and there is no way to control them. Putting controls on biotech is "a loser's game" because there is no way to single out developments in bioweapons from the broader R&D environment. "There are no observables?it all looks like regular science," she said.

"Control of bioweapons can't be imposed like nuclear weapons control," O'Toole said. "Fund this as a national security priority. It's a gift to humanity."

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