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US Not Prepared to Deal With Bioterrorism Threat, says Report - 2003-07-08

A new report is warning that the U.S. government is not prepared to deal with the threat of bioterrorism because of a shortage of science and medical experts. The report by the nonpartisan, nonprofit "Partnership for Public Service", says the U.S. government does not have adequate numbers of experts with the skills needed to anticipate, prepare for and respond to a bioterrorism attack.

"Biological weapons are the poor man's atomic bomb, and clearly we need to be as prepared as possible to prevent and respond to a potential attack," said Max Stier, President and Chief Executive Officer of the organization.

The study assessed five key federal agencies over the past year.

They include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the Food and Drug Administration, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Among its findings, the report concluded that about half the biodefense related federal employees will be eligible to retire in the next five years. Demand for such experts is increasing, the report stated, while the supply is decreasing.

The report called on the federal government to recruit skilled personnel in the fields of biology and medicine, create a biodefense institute to train those already in the field, and offer higher salaries to attract qualified candidates.

Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, recalled that it was less than two years ago when an anthrax-laced letter sent to the Senate threatened to shut down the work of Congress. Other letters laced with anthrax killed five people around the country. Although top federal law enforcement officers have been investigating the case, those responsible remain unknown.

"The lessons to be learned from October 2001: the bioterrorism threat is very real and it is only likely to grow more ominous in the future," she said.

Senator Collins, the Chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, vowed to hold hearings on the Partnership for Public Service report and use its findings to draft legislation to improve the government's readiness to deal with bioterrorism.