US Still Unprepared for Responding to Large Scale Bio-attack, Authorities Say

The United States still does not yet have adequate bio-response capabilities to address “fundamental expectations during a large-scale biological event,” public health authorities say. That also was the conclusion of a report by the Bipartisan WMD Terrorism Research Center.

The report outlined what continues to be growing concerns on the part of federal, state, local and NGO public health preparedness officials regarding the adequacy of the government’s bio-response capabilities, whether the bio-event is manmade or natural.

[Editor’s note: A wrong version of this report was earlier published in error. We apologize for the mistake]

Federal and state officials have told Homeland Security Today that they continue to be especially concerned about the adequacy of the nation’s Strategic National Stockpile, which they say lacks necessary bio-countermeasures for dealing with a large-scale biological event.

Speaking on background because of the positions they hold, they framed their comments in the context of what they said are concerns about the potential for biological weapons or materials getting into the hands of terrorists and rogue states, and pointed to fears about Syria’s bio-weapons stockpiles and production capabilities, and whether they are adequately secured.

As the conflict in Syria intensifies, and as Islamist rebel forces advance, authorities have expressed concerns that the Syrian government’s bio-facilities could be overrun.

US officials have been very quiet regarding Syria’s bio-weapons capabilities.

The report by the WWMD Center had said the “United States is unprepared to respond to a global out-break of a deadly virus for which we have no medical countermeasures,” adding, “No one in the fields of biodefense, public health or medicine will be surprised by the report’s finding[s].”

The WMD Center’s Bio-response Report Card concluded that “a response to bioweapons that have been made resistant to our current medical countermeasures would fail to meet fundamental expectations.”

The WMD Center is a not-for-profit research and education organization founded in March 2010 by the chair, vice chair and executive director of the Congressional Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism.

The organization’s report said because Congress and the administration have “focused primarily on addressing [the] most extreme, less common scenarios, it could easily expend most available biodefense resources, without a measurable return on investment.”

The WMD Center recommended that future preparedness programs focus on large-scale events, saying it is possible to improve response capabilities “in the relative near-term, and doing so would significantly improve readiness for small-scale events as well.”

To provide the best return on investment, the WMD Center concluded that the nation should focus its efforts on three strategic priorities:

  • Leadership that sets clear priorities and engenders commitment and unity of effort;
  • Mobilizing “whole of nation” response planning; and
  • Sustained investment in purpose-driven science.

“Modern biotechnology provides small groups the capabilities for a game-changing bio-attack previously reserved to nation-states,” the report said. But “even more troubling, rapid advances in biotechnology, such as synthetic biology, will allow small teams of individuals to produce increasingly powerful bioweapons in the future.”

“Today, some scholars would look to the past to predict the future of bioterrorism,” the 2011 report card stated. “They argue it has proven too difficult for terrorist groups to successfully develop and use sophisticated bioweapons — that the threat is overstated.”

The WMD Center said a better way to forecast the threat of bioterrorism is through carefully examining the following three critical questions:

  • Can non-state actors produce and deliver biological weapons? (Capability);
  • Is there a desire by terrorists to use biological weapons? (Intent); and
  • Would using biological weapons produce the intended effects? (Vulnerability and Consequences)

 Authorities working in the field of bio-response say most of these conditions still exist, and are continuing to call for improved bio-response measures and appropriate stockpiles of medical countermeasures.

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