Statement of Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Susan M. Collins on SARS Hearing

Mr. Chairman, thank you for calling this morning’s hearing to examine ways that we can help to make sure that our local communities are properly prepared to respond to an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome—or SARS.

SARS has proven itself to be a formidable global threat. There is neither a treatment nor a cure for this deadly, highly contagious virus that has spread throughout Asia and into parts of Europe, Canada and the United States. To date, there have been more than 8,400 probable cases of SARS reported in 29 countries worldwide and more than 800 people have died.

Quick action on the part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and our state and local health officials has resulted in a relatively low number of SARS cases in the United States so far, with no deaths. Moreover, no new outbreaks of the disease have been reported in recent weeks, and travel alerts have been removed from Taiwan, Bejing, Hong Kong and Toronto.

While this is good news, we should not rest easy. I believe that we are dealing with a “sleeping giant,” and was extremely disturbed by the testimony that the Subcommittee heard at its first hearing on SARS last May.

Dr. Michael Osterholm, Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research at the University of Minnesota, told the Subcommittee that the disease “has now seeded itself in a significant number of humans as to make its elimination impossible.” He went on to tell us that he was convinced that “like the early days of the HIV epidemic, the worst of SARS is yet to come.” Virtually all of the public health experts who testified agreed with Dr. Osterholm’s prediction that there will be a resurgence of SARS with the onset of the flu season this winter that could far exceed our experience with the disease to date.

While there is absolutely no evidence that SARS is part of a planned attack, our institutional capability to deal with such an epidemic is the same whether it is the consequence of a terrorist act or a naturally occurring event. In fact, a major side benefit of all of our efforts to strengthen our homeland defense capabilities should be an improved ability to respond to all kinds of emergencies.

Since physicians, nurses and other health care workers on the front lines are likely to be the first individuals to encounter cases of an emerging infectious disease like SARS, it is critical that they have the support and information that they need from federal agencies like the CDC to identify and effectively contain such an outbreak.

I therefore commend the Chairman for his efforts to try to identify ways that we can help our local communities to protect themselves, and once again, I thank you for convening this hearing.