Flaws in the U.S.' current defenses against dangerous diseases are numerous and institutional, according to experts. In response to these shortcomings, key congressional leaders are vowing action to fix the problems.
Speakers at a recent bioterrorism and infectious disease conference, hosted by Georgetown University, generally agreed that the United States lagged in many areas of bio-defense, including the quality of detection equipment, the readiness of hospitals to accept mass casualties, the ability of state and local governments to distribute vaccines and the willingness of the private sector to develop countermeasures to probable biological weapons.
"For the next 20 years we are going to have gaps that a willful terrorist will be able to walk through," said Michael McDonald, president Global Health Initiatives, a medical information and technology company.
Also troubling were assertions that efforts to thwart naturally-occurring diseases, which pose an equal or greater threat, were not given as much attention as deliberate releases.
High on the list of worrisome emerging diseases is avian flu. Because all influenza viruses have the ability to change, scientists are concerned that the virus could one day be communicable between humans and become a pandemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Human immune systems have little protection against influenza strains starting in animal populations.
The threat from avian flu "exceeds by an order of magnitude" a biological al-Queda attack, said Richard Falkenrath, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who until May 2004 served in the White House as deputy assistant to the president and deputy homeland security advisor. "I do not think our response is commensurate with the risk."
Even worse, if a treatment or vaccine existed, "not a single city or state is able to distribute it from the tarmac in a significant time frame," Falkenrath said.
He added that if a manmade, mass-casualty attack had been identified and the only unknown aspect was the timing, the government would show a more robust response. However, in the case of a strain of avian flu, he said the response has been sluggish.
Key politicians agree, and legislative action is high on the list of some influential agenda-setters.
"In essence, we have no vaccine for avian flu. Nor do we have enough of the antiviral agent Tamiflu to treat more than one percent of our population for avian flu," said U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., during a speech at Harvard University. "Though not as initially dramatic as a nuclear blast, biological warfare is potentially far more destructive . …