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Remember the Anthrax Attacks?

America Needs a Complete Biodefense Plan

It's been five years since those anthrax attacks, yet the U.S. remains vulnerable. We have a plan.

This coming week marks the five-year anniversary of the first anthrax attack on the U.S. Congress, when Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota (now a distinguished senior fellow at the Center for American Progress) received a letter containing sophisticated anthrax that shut down much of the U.S. Senate complex for months. Anthrax had also been sent through the mail to other people and organizations, among them several news organizations, broadcaster Tom Brokaw and Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont.

In all, these attacks killed five people, injured 17 others and alarmed the entire country. The anthrax attacks left Americans wondering what their government could do to protect them from terrorist attacks. The invasion of Afghanistan was our swift response to 9/11, but no such success is anywhere evident in the anthrax attacks, which to this day remain unsolved. 

Also largely unresolved is a federal plan for responding to another biological terrorist attack or similar threats posed by natural pandemics and biological terrorism. In fact, the federal plan in place today bears a striking resemblance to the plan that was to guide the federal response to Hurricane Katrina: both assume that state and local entities have the resources and capabilities to take over primary responsibility for managing the crisis. Unfortunately, the reality is that they do not.

Since 9/11, the United States has undertaken a series of worthy efforts to strengthen biosecurity, but they do not add up to an effective biosecurity system for all Americans. The primary reason is a failure to correlate plans on paper with the capabilities needed to implement them. The report offers more than three dozen recommendations in the interrelated and mutually reinforcing areas of global nonproliferation, domestic and international public health, and scientific research and development.

A report on biosecurity (PDF) published by the Center for American Progress this past summer, titled “Biosecurity: A Comprehensive Action Plan,” details why the United States must develop more systematic and comprehensive solutions to the biological security threats facing our nation. The report, co-authored by Jonathan Tucker, a senior fellow at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, and Andrew Grotto, a senior national security analyst at the Center, offers a comprehensive action plan.

Tucker and Grotto call for the federal government to implement a new research and development strategy for anti-infective drugs and vaccines, remedy critical deficiencies in the nation’s public health system, and strengthen global efforts to prevent terrorists abroad from acquiring the materials, equipment, and know-how to produce biological weapons. Five years after that attack on the U.S. Congress, these proposals are well worth considering anew.

For more information on the Center’s report, “Biosecurity: A Comprehensive Action Plan,” please go to the following link:

Read the transcript or view a video of the Center’s conference on the topic thisd past summer, featuring Jonathan B. Tucker, Senior Fellow, Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies; Andrew J. Grotto, Senior National Security Analyst at the Center for American Progress; David Heyman, Director and Senior Fellow of the Homeland Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies; and Laura Segal, Director of Public Affairs at the Trust for America’s Health.

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