Obama shifts bioterrorism strategy to preventive, but Congress slow to move

The Obama administration’s new biological threat strategy has put the U.S. back in the forefront of the international community striving to thwart biological terrorist attacks, after spending years on the fringes, but Congress’s role remains to be seen.

Ellen Tauscher, the State Department’s undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security, announced on Wednesday the new strategy that aims to forge a deeper relationship with other countries at a meeting of the Biological Weapons Convention in Geneva, Switzerland.

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And while the strategy shifts the Bush administration’s policy focus from mitigation to one of prevention and has excited experts in the field, it has also prompted them to look realistically at the role Congress is likely to play in striving to prevent terrorists from infecting people with anthrax, smallpox and other deadly biological agents.

“Anything international that doesn’t say Afghanistan or Iran or deal with nuclear weapons right now is going to be hard to get energy on,” said Barry Kellman, the president of the International Security and Biopolicy Institute, in a phone interview.

“Until there’s a real political consensus for doing this, it’s going to be hard to move policy, which is another reason why I think what the administration has done is so important because at least they have set up the framework for a way we can all get on the same agenda.”

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade, recently asked Kellman’s nonprofit group to “conduct an independent assessment of U.S. foreign policies and programs to reduce bio-dangers,” according to Sherman’s office.

And Kellman is set to brief members of the House on how the U.S. fares in the international biological protection arena, including his take on the White House’s new strategy, next Thursday.

The seven-part strategy stipulates that while President George W. Bush’s administration, following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, did an admirable job in advancing the government’s response and recognition tactics, it did little in the way of focusing on measures to prevent such threats.

“We cannot be complacent but instead must take action,” the strategy states. “Although it is entirely feasible to mitigate the impact of even a large-scale biological attack upon a city’s population, doing so incurs a significant cost and effort. We therefore need to place increased priority on actions to further reduce the likelihood that such an attack might occur.”

Both the strategy and Tauscher also mentioned the 2001 stream of anthrax-laced letters that resulted in five deaths and 22 infections, including the prolonged shutdown of several Capitol office buildings “and enormous costs for emergency response and remediation.”

But while Obama’s announcement has energized the international biological sciences community, in some ways it has not departed from the Bush administration’s stance.

In 2001 Bush withdrew the U.S. from negotiations looking to create an inspection or verification process to ensure that the more than 160 countries pledging to the Biological Weapons Convention mandates – which prohibit the development, production and stockpiling of weaponized disease agents such as anthrax, smallpox or plague – were staying true to their word.

Earlier this week the Obama administration echoed the former president’s sentiments.

“The Obama administration will not seek to revive negotiations on a verification protocol to the Convention,” said Tauscher. “We have carefully reviewed previous efforts to develop a verification protocol and have determined that a legally binding protocol would not achieve meaningful verification or greater security.”

Kellman agreed, saying that given the rapid evolution of the biological market, technologies that once could only be made in a laboratory can now be made anywhere, so it would be impossible to verify that a country is holding true to the convention protocols.

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Instead, Kellman said, the Obama administration is rightly aiming to place a greater emphasis on information gathering and sharing between partner countries as a way to create a global security net that identifies biological terrorist threats before or soon after they arise.

“We will seek to obtain timely and accurate information on the full spectrum of threats and challenges,” Tauscher said. “We want to reinvigorate the Biological Weapons Convention as the premier forum for global outreach and coordination.”

The results if the U.S. did not, the strategy outlines, could be catastrophic:

“The unmitigated consequences of such an event could overwhelm our public health capabilities, potentially causing an untold number of deaths. The economic cost could exceed one trillion dollars for each such incident. In addition, there could be significant societal and political consequences that would derive from the incident’s direct impact on our way of life and the public’s trust in government.”

Sherman’s office confirmed that he anticipates holding a hearing on bioterrorism issues in the spring of next year. But that day cannot get here soon enough for Kellman -- who, after being closely involved in the subject area for about 10 years, has grown increasingly concerned.

“We’re going to be really ready for the second attack,” Kellman said. “It’s just the first one that we’re going to be in horrible shape for.”