President Barack Obama will use his State of the Union address to unveil a new plan for a better and quicker response to bioterrorism threats and attacks, the White House said Tuesday.
Government leaders will be told to rethink their plans for medical countermeasures so that quick, reliable and affordable antidotes will be available during any public-health emergency, White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said. The president will describe an effort to redesign the medical antidote system, he said.
Even as the White House cited Mr. Obama’s bioterror-plan announcement, a congressionally mandated panel slammed the government for what it considered an inability to respond to bioterrorist attacks.
The Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation gave the Obama administration a failing grade for its efforts to prepare for and respond to a biological attack. (See the full text of the report.)
The Obama administration doesn’t agree with a “report card” the commission issued Tuesday, according to another administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
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The government did respond to a 2008 report by the panel, and developed a plan to prevent the illegal spread of biological weapons, such as anthrax. Mr. Obama rolled out that plan in November.
A month later, Mr. Obama signed an order to create a system so that the federal government could rapidly distribute medical countermeasures to supplement state and local responses after a biological attack, Mr. Shapiro said. The system relies partly on the U.S. Postal Service’s ability to reach every American household.
Mr. Obama’s new plan will mean that better and cheaper drugs will be distributed more quickly, he said.
Despite these efforts, the WMD commission said the Obama administration isn’t addressing urgent threats, including bioterrorism.
“Each of the last three administrations has been slow to recognize and respond to the biothreat,” said former Sen. Bob Graham, chairman of the commission. “But we no longer have the luxury of a slow learning curve, when we know al Qaeda is interested in bioweapons.”
Retired Air Force Col. Randy Larsen, the commission’s executive director, said the government was poorly prepared for the swine-flu epidemic in 2009, suggesting that the country is not positioned to respond to something more serious. He pointed to the early shortage of H1N1 vaccine despite a six-month warning from health officials that the disease would be potentially deadly.
The shortage, however, was largely due to private manufacturing problems that the government hopes to alleviate in the future with a different process to make flu vaccine. The government’s work to identify the new flu virus and create seed stock for a vaccine quickly has been praised.
The WMD commission was formed by Congress to evaluate the government’s readiness for a terror attack involving weapons of mass destruction.
Its report follows a study released Monday that warned that al Qaeda is still pursuing technology to conduct a biological, chemical or even nuclear attack against the U.S.
That study, released by Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, said al Qaeda’s “top WMD priority has been to acquire nuclear and strategic biological weapons.”