Lieberman Heeds Lessons of SARS Outbreak

WASHINGTON – The response to the recent outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome should be instructive to the nation’s preparation for a bioterror attack, according to Governmental Affairs Committee Ranking Member Joe Lieberman, D-Conn. The rapid spread of SARS throughout Asia, and now North America, underscores the need for new funding and stronger leadership to prepare the nation for a potential bioterror attack, Lieberman said, and to equip American’s public health first responders with the tools they need to protect us. SARS is much like what a bioterror attack might look like, Lieberman said.

There is no antidote for SARS, no vaccine, no countermeasure. The only effective medical response may be quarantine. Public health officials simply don’t have the tools to deal with this highly contagious and highly virulent disease, the Senator said.

“If SARS is 4 percent lethal, what will we do with a disease that is 80 percent lethal?” he asked. “What will we do with a disease that spreads faster and is harder to diagnose? Let’s not cross our fingers and hope.”

Lieberman called for an immediate investment of $3 billion over and above the administration’s proposed Fiscal Year 2004 budget for bioterror preparedness – $1 billion to increase Centers for Disease Control grants to help state public health departments care for and track infectious disease outbreaks, another $500 million of which would help local hospitals increase capacity, training and supplies, and $1.5 billion to help get new medical research as quickly as possible from the discovery phase into actual use.

In addition, Lieberman and Senator Orrin Hatch, R-Utah., have co-authored legislation – the Biological, Chemical and Radiological Weapons Countermeasures Research Act (S. 666) – to shore up the nation’s bioterror preparedness by stimulating private sector development of new medicines, vaccines and antidotes to protect against biological, chemical, and radiological attacks. Research to develop drugs, vaccines, and antidotes needs to accelerate now, Lieberman said, not six or 12 months down the road. His comments came in a statement timed to the passage of a first responder amendment to the FY 03 supplemental appropriations bill.

“Just as September 11th challenged our police officers and firefighters as never before, a biological or chemical attack would challenge our public health first responders as never before,” Lieberman said. “And the reality is, if that happens, we’re nowhere near ready. As resolute and resourceful as our public health professionals are, they lack the support, the capabilities, and the funding they need to detect these deadly diseases swiftly and protect us effectively. We need significant new investment today to improve our readiness tomorrow.”