Thompson Admits U.S. Unprepared for Bioterror Attack
HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson yesterday "conceded" that the United States "is not fully prepared" to respond to a biological or chemical attack, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports. On CBS' "60 Minutes" Sunday, Thompson said that the United States could "take care of any contingency, any consequence, that develops for any kind of bioterrorism attack." But during a Senate Appropriations health subcommittee hearing yesterday, Thompson said that "there is more we can do -- and must do -- to strengthen our response" (Goldstein et al., Philadelphia Inquirer, 10/4). According to the Washington Post, Thompson "finds himself walking a rhetorical tightrope, soothing a jittery public but readying the nation for a possible future attack" (Connolly, Washington Post, 10/4). Most public health experts have said that "much more needs to be done" to prepare the United States for a biological attack (Stolberg, New York Times, 10/4). During the hearing, several senators "chastised" Thompson for his "overconfidence" in U.S. preparedness for a bioterrorist attack. "I don't believe that," subcommittee Chair Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) said (Washington Post, 10/4). Thompson said that the public "should not be scared into believing they need to buy gas masks. And people should not be frightened into hoarding medicine" (Lipman, Cox News Service/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 10/4). However, Thompson urged Americans to "be on the lookout for mysterious health symptoms" and to visit a doctor "if they spot any" (USA Today, 10/4). "I strongly advise them to be more alert than they have in the past," Thompson said (Washington Post, 10/4).
Thompson asked Congress for "around $800 million" to help address the threat of bioterrorism (Rovner, CongressDaily/AM, 10/4). He said that he hopes to boost state and local health departments that "would most likely be the first to spot an outbreak." In addition, he said that states must upgrade their computer systems to monitor diseases. He added that doctors and nurses must receive "better training" to respond to a bioterrorist attack. Thompson plans to establish a bioterrorism advisory panel, headed by D.A. Henderson, a physician at Johns Hopkins University who led efforts to eliminate smallpox in 1977. He has also asked the National Governors' Association and the American Medical Association to hold annual meetings on bioterrorism (Washington Post, 10/4). In addition, Thompson said that Acambis PLC, which manufactures a new smallpox vaccine, would deliver 40 million doses to the federal government by next year, two to three years ahead of schedule (New York Times, 10/4). However, he said that the government would not launch a campaign to inoculate Americans against smallpox, pointing out that the vaccine has a number of "side effects" (Reuters/Washington Times, 10/4). Thompson added that BioPort Corp., which manufactures an anthrax vaccine for the U.S. military, may resume production in six weeks. The FDA shut down the facility in 1998 after an investigation found "numerous deficiencies" (McGinley, Wall Street Journal, 10/4).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.