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Bush Officials Deny Charges of Slow Progress on Bioterrorism Defense Measures - 2004-06-05

Public health experts and members of the U.S. Congress accuse the Bush administration of making slow progress toward defending the country against a potential bioterrorist attack. But the government says it has made substantial advances in the 3.5 years since the terror attack on New York and Washington and the sending of deadly anthrax powder through the U.S. mail.

U.S. lawmakers, Republicans and opposition Democrat alike, say the government has not done enough to foil an attack by terrorists wielding biological weapons such as smallpox. At a recent House of Representative hearing of a committee overseeing homeland defense, members like Democrat Jim Turner complained that the Bush administration has not moved swiftly.

"We've lost the sense of urgency that we need to have to protect the homeland that we all felt in the wake of the 9/11 attacks," he said.

That view is supported by Dr. Shelley Hearne, head of a U.S. non-governmental organization that promotes disease prevention, the Trust for America's Health. "Public health probably is the weakest link in homeland security today," she said.

No one argues that nothing has been done, and U.S. officials point to progress. The head of government infectious disease research, Anthony Fauci says new vaccines against the smallpox and Ebola viruses and an antibiotic against anthrax have shown promise in human tests. President Bush is expected to sign legislation soon that will commit $6-billion over 10 years to create new drugs and vaccines against biological weapons, while new labs are being set up across the country to study and contain such microbes.

"The amount of progress that has been made to close the gap of that threat is the fastest that I have ever seen in any public health endeavor," he said.

The Bush administration is also seeking to close another gap, the one in communication among government agencies with security and public health responsibilities. Dr. Fauci says his department coordinates now with military and homeland security officials. The head of science at the new U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Penrose Albright, says a national biodefense center is being built at a military base near Washington that will eventually unite researchers from several agencies developing tactics against biological weapons.

"When we talk about this center, it is really aimed at promoting a professionally collaborative environment where people who are working different parts of the problem can freely intermingle and share ideas," he said.

In addition, the national government has been dispensing billions of dollars since 2001 to strengthen state and local public health systems around the United States.

But a new study by the Rand Corporation, a public policy research organization, calls regional preparedness into question. It says the largest U.S. state, California, is not ready for a public health crisis such as a biological attack and would respond haphazardly, despite the progress it has made in this area. The study says national funding has been slow to reach the state.

Dr. Hearne at the Trust for America's Health says two-thirds of the 50 U.S. states have cut public health spending because of budget pressures, and only six are adequately prepared to respond to a health crisis.

"The reality is we need to have that vigilance across the board and improve our ability to rapidly respond at all levels in this country. That has not been a priority and a response that we've seen yet at the level that we would like," she said.

Dr. Hearne says the U.S. public health system is still geared mainly to fighting naturally-occuring infections and is only a little better prepared to fight bioterrorism than before 2001. She argues that interagency coordination efforts are still too informal and unsatisfactory.

House Homeland Security Committee member Christopher Shays, a member of the president's Republican Party, complains that drug and vaccine development is still too slow and that the six-billion dollar program to create new compounds is long overdue.

"Why aren't we on three shifts to deal with this issue? Why wasn't this a 'round-the-clock effort, and it isn't and that is what's of concern," he said.

But Dr. Fauci says science takes time. "When you're doing research, there are things you can't push and that is something that really needs to be understood. You can't demand the science to give you a discovery," he said.

Other top U.S. health officials assured the lawmakers that defending against bioterrorism and coordinating with states and cities are among the highest Bush administration priorities, with continued substantial investment in 2005.