WASHINGTON – The nation is more prepared for a biological attack or a naturally occurring pandemic than it was 10 years ago through creation of new disease surveillance systems, new vaccines, and new ways to analyze and characterize threats, experts told the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Tuesday. But the ability to treat people effectively could be hampered by an understaffed public health care system, an absence of countermeasures to many threats, and an insufficient ability to rapidly distribute therapeutics to a mass population.

Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., and Ranking Member Susan Collins, R-Maine, examined our preparedness for a biological incident during their 10th hearing in a yearlong “Ten Years After 9/11” series.

“Over the past decade, we have spent billions of dollars on bio-defense research; on strengthening first responder capabilities; and on developing new vaccines, bio-surveillance systems, and forensic science techniques,” Lieberman said. “Really we’ve done a lot more than the average American knows about to protect their security.

“But it is also clear from reports that we are not prepared for a catastrophic biological incident.  We are much better prepared for a smaller WMD attack although gaps remain there too.  We lack a strategy for dispensing vaccines and antibiotics in a mass crisis and tight budgets have led to an under-staffed medical surge force to respond to a biological attack in communities around the country.”

Collins said: “A multitude of federal agencies–DHS, EPA, HHS, CDC, USDA, and the FBI, among others– all have some responsibility for bioterrorism.  It concerns me that so many different federal entities could be scrambling to respond during and after an attack.  And, of course, state and local health officials and first responders are part of the system as well.   Still, our best hope of detecting and containing an attack is the low-tech, unglamorous but critically important system of intelligence combined with a robust public health surveillance network.  This is still the most effective system and we must be careful not to look for technological ‘magic bullets’ to relieve us of the duty to maintain and strengthen our public health surveillance infrastructure.”

Three years ago, the Graham-Talent Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism concluded that a biological weapon was more likely than any other weapon of mass destruction to be used in an attack that causes mass casualties. The Commission predicted such an attack would probably occur somewhere in the world within the following five years and concluded that the federal government was not prepared to respond adequately to such an event.

Last week, the Bipartisan WMD Research Center, a follow-on to that Graham-Talent Commission reported that the threat of a bioterror attack remains as strong as ever.

Witnesses at the hearing were: Department of Homeland Security Under Secretary for Science and Technology Tara O’Toole, DHS Assistant Secretary for Health Affairs and Chief Medical Officer Alexander Garza, Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Nicole Lurie, FBI Assistant Director of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate Vahid Majidi,  Director of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Thomas Inglesby, Former Special Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Senior Director for Biological Defense Policy Robert Kadlec, and Trust for America’s Health Executive Director Jeffrey Levi.