Politicians had plenty of bioterror warnings

This Just In...

October 31, 2001|By Dan Rodricks

REGARDING the threat of bioterrorism against American citizens: Someday, someone will have to launch an inquiry into what we knew and when we knew it, and why we didn't do enough about it. Like a lot of American citizens, I have been in a state of shock since 9-11, which has made me susceptible to the belief that all the unthinkable things unfolding before us -- postal anthrax, for instance -- must have been beyond the vision of our government. It's what I argued in my last column, that we should cut Washington a break because terrorism of this nature and scale has never before been seen, and everyone from the postmaster general on down is trying to do the right thing.

This simple and sympathetic view needs a little tinkering, and I'll do it here today.

For one thing, I need to make a distinction between the government of science, regulation and public welfare (some would call that the bureaucracy) and the government of pandering politicians (some would call that the Congress). It's the latter group that needs to answer questions about bioterrorism -- what it knew and when it knew it, and why the nation had no coordinated system for dealing with it. For years, we've had a Congress of gridlock and less-is-best government bashers, and during the Clinton administration an executive who sounded retreat from progressive initiatives and ruled by poll. The whole lot is suspect.

They had warnings. A system for investigating and dealing with biological terrorism in an orderly way could have been in place by now -- if those who write the laws and craft the budgets had been so moved.

Among many others, a public health scientist from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in Baltimore has been trying to get Washington's attention on the threats for some time.

Throughout his career, 73-year-old Donald "D.A." Henderson's principal concern has been infectious diseases, and he's best known for having led the campaign to eradicate smallpox worldwide.

During the past several years, he turned his attention to -- and invested his considerable credibility in -- the threat of biological weapons. He now serves as director of the Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies.

In blunt testimony before a Senate committee, he called the nation "ill-prepared" to deal with bioterrorism.

Don't feel bad if you missed it, because Henderson spoke back in the good old days, before the current state of emergency -- six days before the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. His was hardly the first warning on the threat of bioterrorism but probably the last and most significant one before 9-11. Henderson deserves some extensive quoting, and I'll offer it here today.

On the threat:

"Nothing in the realm of natural catastrophes or man-made disasters rivals the complex problems of response that would follow a bioweapons attack against a civilian population. The consequence of such an attack would be an epidemic and, in this country, we have had little experience in coping with epidemics. No city has had to deal with a truly serious epidemic accompanied by large numbers of cases and deaths since the 1918 influenza epidemic, more than two generations ago. ...

"In 1993, the Office of Technology Assessment estimated that 100 kilograms of anthrax released upwind of a large American city -- the model being Washington, D.C. -- could cause between 130,000 and 3 million deaths, depending on the weather and other variables. This degree of carnage is in the same range as that forecast for a hydrogen bomb. ...

"A World Health Organization analysis, now 30 years old, supported the belief that biological weapons are strategic, population-destroying weapons. Since then, the technology needed to create and disperse these weapons has advanced significantly."

On the making of bioweapons:

"A biological weapon can be produced with the same equipment one uses to produce an ordinary vaccine; it can be readily housed in a building the size of a two-car garage. ... The technologies needed to build biological weapons are available in the open literature and on the Internet. This is not knowledge that is limited to a few hundred scientists isolated in a laboratory in the western desert."

The consequences:

"In all probability, we would know that something had happened only when people started appearing in the emergency rooms and doctors' offices with strange maladies. ... Few physicians have ever seen cases of anthrax or smallpox or pneumonic plague."

On our preparedness:

"There is ... no comprehensive national plan nor an agreed strategy for dealing with the problem of biological weapons. There is little interagency coordination at the federal level and nationally funded programs appear to be as often competitive as cooperative. ...

"The hospitals have struggled to become ever more efficient, but, in their quest to eliminate inefficiencies, they have basically wiped out their surge capacity. Even minor increases in patient demand, such as that of the 1999 brief and mild flu season, strained most hospitals. ... Baltimore, home to two major medical centers and medical schools, could not handle an acute situation that produced as many as 50 casualties requiring ventilators. A handful of highly contagious patients would cause havoc, there being in the Baltimore-Washington area no more than 100 beds in negative pressure rooms that could handle highly contagious patients. ... There really is no public health `system' for dealing with infectious diseases in this country, but, rather, a fragmented pattern of activities."

Henderson served as an adviser to the last President Bush and, since 9-11, he's been serving Present Bush as chairman of an advisory commission on bioterrorism. Maybe Washington will listen to him now.

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