Expert: U.S. unprepared for bioterrorism attack

A recent essay published in Forbes magazine supports the contention that the United States remains woefully unprepared, if not uninterested, in the chances that it will face an attack using biological weapons.

James Glassman, a former undersecretary of state for public affairs and public diplomacy and the founder of the George W. Bush Institute, said that the United States remains vulnerable to an attack that could potentially kill hundreds of thousands of people because it lacks a means of producing needed medical countermeasures, according to Forbes.

Three years ago, a Congressional commission concluded that there is 50 percent chance that there will be an attack using a weapon of mass destruction somewhere in the world by 2013. The Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism declared that the weapon used would more likely be biological than nuclear.

Regardless, Glassman said that the public has heard little about bioterrorism since the anthrax attacks in 2001, despite the considerable risk.

"Terrorists could spray Bacillus anthracis from crop-dusters over football stadiums," Glassman wrote, Forbes reports. "Or they could send intentionally infected fanatics out to spread the smallpox virus through a crowded city, doing far more damage than a brigade of suicide bombers."

Glassman pointed to last October's Bio-Response Report Card study, issued last year by the Bipartisan WMD Terrorism Research Center, as proof that the country needs to do more to confront the threat of bioterrorism. The report card gave the United States a "D" grade for its detection and diagnosis capability and for the availability of medical countermeasures.

Glassman said that larger biopharmaceutical firms have done little to develop countermeasures, but small firms have filled the gap with mixed success.

"Today, largely because of these small firms, we currently have enough drugs to limit the impact of a small-to-medium attack using anthrax or similar pathogens, but we would probably be helpless against an attack using mutant strains," Glassman said, according to Forbes. "Here is the challenge: Unless the U.S. government makes a clear, long-term commitment to the development and purchase of medical countermeasures to bioterrorism, the companies that produce and develop these medicines will not be able to continue to make them. The market is limited, the liability risk is high, and the firms have to make long-term investments that now seem highly dubious without more certainty from the federal government."