Proposed Homeland Security Department would take over bioterrorism-related work

Jun 7, 2002 (CIDRAP News) – President Bush's proposal to consolidate homeland security programs in a new Cabinet department apparently would take sizable bioterrorism-related programs away from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

One of the four agencies in the proposed Department of Homeland Security would be one dealing with chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) countermeasures, according to the White House. The department also would take over some US Department of Agriculture activities to protect agriculture and the food supply from sabotage.

"The Department would unify our defenses against human, animal, and plant diseases that could be used as terrorist weapons," states a report on the White House Web site. "The Department would sponsor outside research, development, and testing to invent new vaccines, antidotes, diagnostics, and therapies against biological and chemical warfare agents; to recognize, identify, and confirm the occurrence of an attack; and to minimize the morbidity and mortaility caused by any biological or chemical agent."

The statement continues, "The Department would unify our defenses against agricultural terrorism—the malicious use of plant or animal pathogens to cause disease in the agricultural sector. The Department would exclude agricultural pests and diseases at the border. It would strengthen national research programs and surveillance systems to shield agriculture from natural or deliberately induced pests or disease. Working with the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services, it would also ensure that rigorous inspection and quality assurance programs protect the food supply from farm to fork."

The report also says that the new department would lead efforts to provide and maintain a system for detecting bioterrorist attacks. "This system would consist of a national public health data surveillance system to monitor public and private databases for indications that a bioterrorist attack has occurred, as well as a sensor network to detect and report the release of bioterrorist pathogens in densely populated areas."

Bush announced the reorganization proposal in a televised speech yesterday evening. Besides the CBRN agency, the main components of the new department would be agencies dealing with border and transportation security, emergency preparedness and response, and information analysis and infrastructure protection. "The staff of this new department will be largely drawn from the agencies we are combining," the president said. White House officials said the new department would have a total staff of about 170,000 and a $37 billion budget. The reorganization will require an act of Congress.

Currently, detecting and responding to bioterrorism attacks is primarily a function of the CDC—part of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)—working with state and local public health agencies. Research on vaccines, diagnostics, and treatments for bioterrorism-related diseases is administered primarily by the NIH, also part of HHS. If Congress supports Bush's plan, these activities apparently would be transferred to the Homeland Security Department.

A chart in the White House's main report on the reorganization proposal shows that the proposed CBRN agency would have a proposed budget of $3.63 billion for fiscal 2003. This would include $1.99 billion for civilian biodefense research programs transferred from HHS, $1.19 billion for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (now part of the Department of Energy), $420 million for a new "National BW Defense Analysis Center," and $25 million for the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, now part of USDA. The chart indicates that 150 full-time HHS positions in civilian biodefense research would move to the new department.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, quoting HHS Assistant Secretary Kevin Keane, reported today that the CDC stands to lose about 300 employees and $4 billion of its budget. The story said the CDC is likely to lose the 50-person Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Program and the National Pharmaceutical Stockpile Program, which has a small staff but a budget of $644 million this year.

A senior Bush administration official said in a press briefing yesterday that the pharmaceutical stockpile will be transferred to the new department. A transcript of the briefing was posted on the White House Web site, but the official was not named.

HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson voiced support for the Bush proposal in a statement released yesterday. "He's making it clear that our nation needs a cohesive department dedicated solely to protecting our citizens from terrorism or attack on the homefront," Thompson said. "I support his sweeping proposal and look forward to working with Congress on securing its passage."

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