Funding cuts threaten vital defense against bioterrorism

The two of us -- at the request of Congress and in the service of two presidents -- have for the past 30 months led a bipartisan effort to assess the danger of a WMD attack and 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 weapon of mass destruction 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 scenario that would result is not that of more than two dozen people becoming ill and five dying, as happened after the anthrax mailings in October 2001, but a much darker picture, as described in a November 2009 National Security Council document.

The effective dissemination of a lethal biological agent in an unprotected population could place hundreds of thousands of people at risk. The "unmitigated consequences," the NSC paper noted, could overwhelm our public health capabilities, causing untold numbers of deaths. 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. Attaining this response capability could help in two ways: Its existence could deter an attack from adversaries seeking a target that would yield the highest death rate; and, if the United States were attacked, an effective response could minimize the death rate.

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 common-sense precaution of stockpiling the necessary drugs.

Congress established the BioShield Strategic Reserve Fund in 2004 to ensure that money would be available to purchase critical 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.

There are few incentives for the private sector to invest hundreds of millions of dollars for these important medical countermeasures. The only customer is the U.S. government. If companies spend huge sums on research and development and obtain Food and Drug Administration approval for one vaccine or drug, they need to know that funds will be available for acquisition. That is the only incentive currently provided, but it may soon go away -- taking with it the most critical element in our response chain.

The House voted on July 7 to raid the BioShield SRF to pay for non-biodefense, non-national security programs. The White House has remained silent on this issue. In a bipartisan vote last week, 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.

Our nation failed to heed the warning signals that preceded the financial collapse in 2008 and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. 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 we have spoken to, both Republican and Democratic, are convinced of the danger. The challenge has been how to get 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 SRF as an ATM card for pet projects.

Bob Graham and Jim Talent. Former senators Bob Graham, a Democrat from Florida, and Jim Talent, a Republican from Missouri, served as the chair and vice chair of the Congressional Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism. Graham is a member of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission and is co-chair of the National Commission on the BP DeepWater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling.