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Senate panel questions U.S. bioterrorism preparedness

Senate Republicans expressed concern Thursday that despite the government's ongoing efforts, the nation remains susceptible to a bioterrorist threat.

At an Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee hearing focused on bioterrorism, Chairman Judd Gregg, R-N.H., said while progress has been made to improve national security, the country should not underestimate how far it needs to go to safeguard the country's food and vaccine supplies.

Doubts raised by Gregg came as Penrose (Parney) Albright, the assistant secretary for science and technology at the Homeland Security Department, testified specifically on the BioShield program coordinated by the Homeland Security and Health and Human Services Departments.

Signed into law last July, the program will provide $5.6 billion over 10 years for the purchase and development of countermeasures to weapons of mass destruction.

Albright testified there is not a "good way" to identify pathogens, such as anthrax and small pox coming across the border into the United States. He added that the department is focusing efforts not on prevention but rather on detection before infected populations exhibit symptoms as a result of a bioterrorism attack.

Noting that the flu can be lethal to some populations such as the elderly, Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, said the country was unprepared to deal with a possible flu pandemic.

Stewart Simonson, assistant secretary in the Office of Public Health Emergency Preparedness at the Health and Human Services Department, stopped short of agreeing with Craig's assessment, but said "it would pose an enormous challenge."

Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and Gregg also questioned if the process used by Simonson's office to award vaccine development contracts ensured open competition and delivery to prevent a vaccine shortfall.

"Are we creating the same situation with anthrax?" Gregg asked, referring to the flu vaccine shortfall last winter.

Simonson responded that the agency has negotiated a contract with California's VaxGen for 75 million doses of an anthrax vaccine and also has ordered 5 million additional doses from other suppliers to satisfy immediate needs.

Although Simonson said the different agreements show that they are "seeking not to put all our eggs in one basket," he added that he remains unsure if the contract award process is being done right.

"We're learning as we go," he said.