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Homeland Security

Senate Bill Prepares for Biological Attack Within 4 Years

By Carolyn Presutti
11 September 2009

Dire predictions in Washington , DC, as senators introduce a bill they hope will prevent a future biological attack. They say the bill will set a gold standard for international bioweapons security.

It was only one week after the September 11 attacks.

Anthrax, a deadly bacteria, is sent through the post office - to U.S. senators and media outlets.

Exposure to anthrax leaves five people dead and 17 infected. Most experts agree, the U.S. was unprepared for a biological attack.

Some argue it still is.

A congressionally mandated commission suggests that a biological attack is likely to occur somewhere in the world within four years.

And that prompted U.S. senators on the Homeland Security Committee to introduce a bill to prevent it.

"The technological hurdles are lower to develop and disseminate a bio weapon," Senator Susan Collins says. "The access to dangerous pathogens is more widespread and harder to contain."

Federal investigators say 15,000 individuals are authorized to handle the most dangerous pathogens at 400 U.S. research facilities. Like here at the US Army's bio defense lab near Washington which the FBI believed to be the source of the deadly anthrax in 2001.

The bill would establish a tier system of 82 pathogens, with tighter security for the most dangerous and eased restrictions on those that don't pose a credible threat.

Small pox and anthrax, would be in Tier 1. $50 million would be allocated annually for additional security.

Senators hope the bill will set a standard that the world can follow.

Bob Graham chairs the commission that predicted a future biological attack.

"There are about 20 countries in the world who are major producers of pathogens," he explains. "There are another twenty or more rising in their capability. We need to control this issue now. Time is not on our side."

The bill would identify countries at risk, then help strengthen their lab security and train scientists who handle Tier 1 pathogens.

"You can work through international organizations, through third parties, but there's room in there for everybody who wants to participate in something like this," said Joe Hogler, who is with the Rand Corporation.

Kavita Berger is with the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She says in many developing countries, pathogens, like malaria carried by mosquitos, are abundant.

"With the exception of maybe small pox and the 1918 influenza virus, all are natural agents that are found in nature somewhere in the world," Berger says. "A lot of our agents are health threats in other parts of the world."

The bill authorizes $40 million for international outreach next year, then $75 million in 2011.

Some are surprised to learn that this type of security wasn't implemented immediately following the September 11 attacks. Scientists and legislators blame rivalries among government agencies and lack of communication.

As one senator put it, sometimes it takes legislation to push people to do what they should be doing in the interest of national security.

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