What Have We Learned from Anthrax?

CAP Event Discusses U.S. Biopreparedness

CAP marks the 10th anniversary of the 2001 anthrax attacks with an event on U.S. biopreparedness.

This October marks the 10th anniversary of the 2001 anthrax attacks in the United States. In September and October 2001, letters containing anthrax spores were sent to several news outlets and two congressional offices. Seventeen Americans were infected. Five were killed. On October 14, a Center for American Progress event looked back on the attacks and also looked forward, exploring whether the United States is now better prepared to answer impending biothreats.

In his opening remarks, Rudy deLeon, CAP Senior Vice President for National Security and former deputy secretary of defense, said, “The 10th anniversary of the anthrax attacks, along with continuing questions about the anthrax investigation, have brought the issue of U.S. biopreparedness back into the focus of homeland security experts. Preventing and containing biological threats, whether they be manmade attacks or natural pathogens, is a critical requirement of national security.”

A panel discussion followed deLeon’s remarks. Moderated by Ken Gude, CAP Managing Director for National Security, the panel included James H. Davis, executive vice president of Human Genome Sciences; Thomas V. Inglesby, chief executive officer and director of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center; and Jeff Levi, executive director of Trust for America’s Health.

The panelists discussed progress in bioterrorist prevention and response in the 10 years since the anthrax attacks.

Inglesby mentioned some of the action taken so far: “We had no FDA program to speak of for biosecurity [before the attacks]. We really had no CDC program, a very tiny one, at the time. DHS didn’t even exist at the time. There was no acquisitions system at all in the government for making medicines or vaccines, except in the DOD, so for all the civilian products, that didn’t exist at the time.”

He was, however, concerned by the many “gaps” in what has been achieved, and the event’s other participants echoed his concern. Levi discussed the challenges currently faced by those working in public health—how recent funding reductions have cut 44,000 jobs in state and local health departments.

He said that “You can have pop-up hospitals, but you can’t have pop-up people. They have to be there, they have to be in place, and they have to be trained.”

Remarks by former Sen. Tom Daschle, CAP Distinguished Senior Fellow and former Senate majority leader, followed the first panel. Daschle’s office was targeted in the anthrax attacks. He talked about his experience but said, “Of course today isn’t about the threat of anthrax alone. It’s even less about my experience with anthrax.” He reiterated deLeon in saying, “This biothreat includes both acts of bioterrorism and naturally occurring epidemics.”

A second panel followed Daschle’s remarks. Daschle moderated this panel, which included former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and Under Secretary of Homeland Security for Science and Technology Tara O’Toole.

Like the panelists before them, both Ridge and O’Toole expressed concern that not enough is being done to answer biothreats. O’Toole discussed the image problem of these threats—namely that they aren’t seen as dangerous compared to other problems faced by the United States. Biothreats can’t be seen and so far they haven’t occurred on a massive scale. She did say, however, that another bioterrorist attack is certainly possible.

This is a sobering thought as this year we mark not only the 10th anniversary of the anthrax attacks, but also the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. We need to recognize the threat of both bioterrorist attacks and epidemics, and we need to prepare to answer them going forward.

For more on this event, see its event page.

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