Feds could make bioterror 'impossible,' expert says

The United States could make it "impossible" for biological agents to be used as effective weapons of terror if the country spends $10 billion to $30 billion a year to revamp its ailing public health system, one of the nation's leading biological defense experts told Global Security Newswire yesterday.

Tara O'Toole, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies, said infectious diseases will probably never be eradicated, but their use as weapons of mass destruction could be virtually eliminated if the United States invests sufficient resources into the public health sector in the next two or three decades.

"If we figure out enough counters to the threats [so] that it would be impossible to use a biological weapon as a weapon of mass lethality," O'Toole said during a wide-ranging interview.

"Twenty years from now, [if terrorists] have a disease that can kill everybody, I'm going to be able to take that disease the first time it hits, diagnose it, take it apart, and figure out the cure and the vaccine within 24 hours," she said.

Such drastic and unprecedented improvements to both public health agencies and health care providers could only result if President Bush implements a national defense policy that places biological defense as a top priority, injecting large amounts of cash that would still only be a fraction of budgets given to the Defense Department and homeland security efforts, O'Toole said.

"We can do this. We are America. We are the best in bioresearch," O'Toole said. "We have enormous advantages in terms of talent and infrastructure."

The $2.2 billion the United States is providing for biological defense this year is deceptively low funding, mainly because $1 billion of those funds are earmarked for diluting and creating more smallpox vaccine, O'Toole said.

Once that $1 billion for vaccines is lopped off, only $700 million is going to the nation's 5,000 hospitals--funds that need to be divided among the 50 states, she said.

"It sounds like a lot of money but it's nothing compared to the need," O'Toole said.

"We've got the Department of Defense Secretary [Donald Rumsfeld] saying that what he worries most about is bioterrorism. Then the next word is that we're spending $700 million for bioterrorism preparedness? Let's get in the same ballpark," she said.

"The increase in the [Defense] budget this year that Bush is asking for is $48 billion," she added. "Not only that, we've got to come from a standing start. This is not a budget that's been nourished throughout the Cold War to some degree of minimal competency. This is public health. It has been starved for the past decades. It doesn't have the fundamental talent that the military has been able to attract."

Attracting "the best and brightest" minds into the field of biological defense is one of O'Toole's main goals.

A recent American Hospital Association report said it would cost $12 billion for all U.S. hospitals to achieve the "rudimentary capability" to handle a biological weapons attack.

Another study in Maryland after a high-rise fire found that all of the state's hospitals combined could provide only 100 ventilators on a given day.

"Seven hundred million dollars is not a huge amount of money. It sounds like an enormous amount of money in terms of public health. [But] $10 million would go very quickly in Maryland," O'Toole said.

Because 36 states are currently mired in a recession and have hiring freezes, states such as Maryland are simply shuffling resources from one area to another, O'Toole said.

The United States, she said, needs to get "the laws changed so you can hire people through more svelte, less agonizing routes … there have to be new conduits for bringing in the talents."