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United States still isn't ready for bioterrorism

The two of us — at the request of Congress and in the service of two presidents — have led a bipartisan effort to assess the danger of an attack involving weapons of mass destruction and to recommend steps to reduce it.

In December 2008, the commission we led on the prevention of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism unanimously concluded that unless the world community acts decisively and with great urgency, it is more likely than not that a WMD will be used in a terrorist attack by the end of 2013 — and that a biological attack is more likely than nuclear. This conclusion was publicly affirmed by then-Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell.

Information has since come to light about the possibility that one or more nation-states may choose to provide sophisticated biological weapons to terrorist groups.

The effective dissemination of a lethal biological agent in an unprotected population could place hundreds of thousands of people at risk and overwhelm our public health capabilities. Economic costs could exceed $1 trillion for each such incident.

When our commission issued its report card in January, we gave the government a failing grade for preparedness to respond to a biological attack.

Our report listed six areas that are key to mitigating the consequences of such an attack: detection and diagnosis, actionable information for leaders and citizens, adequate supplies of medical countermeasures, rapid distribution of those countermeasures, treating the sick and protecting the well, and environmental cleanup. All are important, but the linchpin is having adequate supplies of appropriate medical countermeasures.

Unless we have antibiotics to fight an attack of anthrax or plague, the rest of our preparations won't matter. Tens of thousands of people will die — people who could have been saved had the government taken the commonsense precaution of stockpiling the necessary drugs.

Congress established the BioShield Strategic Reserve Fund in 2004 to ensure that money would be available to purchase crucial vaccines and therapeutics required to protect Americans from biological, chemical and radiological weapons. The fund was designed to be an ironclad pledge by the U.S. government to the private sector: If you take the financial risks to research and develop these medical countermeasures, we guarantee the money will be available to purchase them.

But the House voted on July 7 to raid the BioShield fund to pay for programs unrelated to biodefense and national security. The White House has remained silent on this issue. In a recent bipartisan vote, our former colleagues in the Senate saved the day by refusing to go along with the House version of the bill. But in the past few days, there have been two more attempted raids.

This is one time when our government has the chance to contain and mitigate damage, rather than simply react to yet another disaster. All the officials to whom we have spoken, both Republican and Democratic, are convinced of the danger. The challenge has been getting our government to follow through on the most elementary steps necessary to guard against the most obvious and calamitous risks.

Congress and the administration must stop treating the BioShield fund as an ATM card for pet projects.