President Bush urged Congress to approve an additional $6 billion to help protect the United States from future bioterrorism attacks. But private and public health officials told a Senate subcommittee that more money alone will not make the United States safer from the threat of bioterrorism.
President Bush made his pitch for more money for bioterrorism prevention at the University of Pittsburgh. Health officials there have devised an advanced network to track patients' symptoms that could indicate a disease outbreak as a result of a bioterror attack.
"One, it is important to be able to recognize what is happening. And secondly, we have got to respond, respond in a modern way, a way that will help the American people survive any attack if it were to come," he said.
But even as the president made the case for more federal money, public and private health experts told a Senate subcommittee that the United States' capability to fend off future bioterror attacks remains in doubt.
Dr. Richard Hatchett is coordinator of an effort to organize a medical reserve corps in the United States of physicians who would help local communities respond to bioterror threats and natural catastrophes.
"I think everyone in this room is aware that we are not sufficiently prepared to respond to bioterrorism or for attacks of weapons of mass destruction. Our hospitals are inelastic, our public health systems are not robust, our first responders need more training and more equipment," he said.
Members of Congress say it is especially important that the Bush administration devise a coordinated national response to bioterrorism among the dozens of federal and state agencies involved in bioterror defense.
Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon is Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space.
"Right now, if a town is hit with a biological agent and looking for the closest medical authority, in most towns there is no comprehensive list of certified experts available locally to assist," he said. "Where do those local leaders turn to find help nearby?"
In the wake of last year's anthrax attacks, state and local officials have been busy devising response plans of their own in case of a bioterrorism attack.
But George Benjamin of the Maryland Department of Health says it is time for the federal government to step in and take the lead.
"Trying to find people to deal with anthrax who had actually seen it, and now as we begin to make our plans to look at smallpox, trying to find people who have actually seen smallpox, has really been a challenge," he said.
In addition to improving the government's response to bioterror threats, lawmakers also want to take advantage of private companies that have developed technologies useful in either detecting or fending off bioterror attacks.
Una Ryan is chief executive officer of a Massachusetts company working on developing more effective bio-defense vaccines that could be administered orally instead of being injected.
But she says the government needs to do a better job of cooperating with the private sector.
"We need a central source where we, biotechnology companies, can find out how these great appropriations we hear about are going to be funneled out into the various agencies," Una Ryan said.
Both public and private health officials are urging Congress and the administration to act quickly. A new study conducted by the National Association of Counties revealed that less than ten percent of those county officials surveyed feel fully ready to handle a bioterror attack.