Bush administration catalogs biodefense gains, promises more

Apr 28, 2004 (CIDRAP News) – The Bush administration today released a long catalog of what it considers the nation's biodefense and public health preparedness gains over the last 3 years and promised more improvements to come.

The administration said federal spending for biodefense and public health preparedness in fiscal year 2004 will total $5.2 billion, 17 times what was spent in 2001. "Public health systems are already much stronger and better prepared for bioterrorism and other mass casualty incidents," the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said in a news release.

In addition, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced a new presidential directive on biodefense, called "Biodefense for the 21st Century." The directive "provides a comprehensive framework for our nation's biodefense," the DHS statement said.

Officials said the directive calls for (1) efforts to improve the ability to collect, analyze, and disseminate intelligence on biological weapons; (2) initiatives to improve the detection and seizure of weapons technologies and materials; (3) better surveillance for biological threats; and (4) measures to improve the ability to care for mass casualties and decontaminate sites of attacks. But the DHS statement listed no specific proposals.

The New York Times reported today that the directive calls for the DHS to allocate $11 million to begin setting up a "National Biosurveillance Group" to assess all relevant information about potential biological threats. Bush also ordered a national assessment of biological threats every 2 years and an evaluation of existing biological defenses every 4 years, the story said.

The directive stemmed from a 10-month review of the government's response to the Sep 11 attacks and the ensuing anthrax attacks, the Times reported.

Today's HHS release boasts of the administration's biodefense achievements in state and hospital preparedness, laboratory capacity, communication, food safety, research, medical countermeasures, and interagency coordination. Some highlights follow.

Total spending. The $5.2 billion devoted to biodefense and preparedness this year compares with $294 million in 2001. The sum includes both HHS and Department of Homeland Security spending.

State and hospital preparedness. HHS has provided about $2.7 billion since 2001; that includes $2 billion from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to improve state and local capacity and $650 million from the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) for hospital preparedness.

All 50 states now have bioterrorism response plans, including mass vaccination plans, in place. In addition, all states have plans for receiving and distributing shipments from the Strategic National Stockpile of medical supplies and vaccines.

Training and expertise. HHS now has 1,700 workers dedicated to emergency preparedness, up from 212 in fiscal 2001. At least 3,850 new state and local public health staff members have been funded wholly or partly by the CDC funds. Tens of thousands of other health professionals are receiving bioterrorism-related training through an HRSA program.

Laboratory capacity. The Laboratory Response Network has 120 member laboratories, up from 80 in 2001. By next October the number is expected to reach 145 labs, including 47 state and local labs rated at biosafety level 3.

Communication. The CDC's Public Health Information Network now can reach 1 million recipients quickly. That includes 90% of all county public health agencies, up from 68% 3 years ago.

Federal emergency resources. The Strategic National Stockpile includes a dozen 50-ton "push packages," compared with eight in 2001. The stockpile now includes enough antibiotic doses to treat 20 million people for anthrax exposure. In addition, the government has 300 million doses of smallpox vaccine, compared with 15.4 million 3 years ago.

Food safety. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) "is implementing the most fundamental enhancements of its food safety activities in many years." The agency now has inspectors at 90 ports of entry and is expected to inspect 60,000 food shipments this year. The FDA is implementing new rules for prior notice of food import shipments, food record-keeping, and registration of food facilities.

Biodefense research. Funding of biodefense research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) increased from $53 million 2001 to $1.6 billion this year. New and improved vaccines for smallpox, anthrax, Ebola virus, and other potential bioweapons are being developed. NIH has supported the genetic sequencing of all bacteria considered to be bioterror threats and the sequencing of at least one strain of every virus and protozoan considered a potential weapon. The agency also is funding 11 new highly secure research labs.

Other measures. The FDA in the past 2 years has established the "animal rule," which permits the approval of certain medical products on the basis of animal tests alone if human testing is unfeasible.

The HHS statement does not mention the civilian smallpox vaccination program. When the program was launched in January 2003, the CDC expected that about half a million health workers would be vaccinated, but only about 40,000 have received the shots so far. More than 600,000 military personnel have been vaccinated since the Department of Defense launched its own program in December 2002.

See also:

HHS news release
http://archive.hhs.gov/news/press/2004pres/20040428.html

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