“Isolate, weaponize, disperse”: House Homeland Subcommittee stresses need for increased readiness against threat of bioterrorism

By: Haleigh Francis

Washington, D.C. – The House of Representatives Subcommittee on Homeland Security believes that one of the main responsibilities of the federal government is to protect the homeland, and one of the biggest potential threats to the homeland is a different kind of weapon of mass destruction: bioterrorism.

Chairman of the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Homeland Security Martha McSally (R-AZ) stressed the importance of preparation for a potential devastating biological attack or outbreak in America at the hearing the committee held on Wednesday.

One of the main issues, she detailed, is that it isn’t very clear who exactly is the one official federal agent in charge of dealing with such matters. Without proper leadership in the area of biodefense, the subcommittee fears the effects of outbreaks, such as the ebola crisis last fall.

“A bio attack could cause illness or death in hundreds of thousands of people, overwhelm our public health capabilities and have an economic impact of over one trillion dollars per incident,” McSally said.

In regards to the ebola crisis, McSally and the two other speaking committee members made clear that New York City’s response was admirable and effective. Marisa Raphael, Deputy Commissioner of the Office of Emergency Planning and Response for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, was present as a witness, and explained the reason for the positive response the city had.

The health and emergency response departments of New York City, she explained, recognize that biological events can spread to the city quickly. With New York being a major hub of activity on a global level, organized preparedness is not only important, but absolutely necessary.

Raphael stated that the emergency response of New York City is like a national model for how the rest of the nation should prepare for and react to biological outbreaks.

“The reason that New York City is so advanced is because we have dedicated staff who are working on this every day,” Raphael said.

McSally questioned Dr. Charles Cairns, Interim Dean at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, on whether or not he thinks other cities around the country are nearly as prepared for biological events as New York was for the ebola crisis.

“I don’t think Tucson or Phoenix would have that experience, or those resources,” Cairns said.

Of the 15 potential agents for bioterrorism, such as anthrax and smallpox, McSally stressed that the country only has potential countermeasures for three. Jim Talent, former Missouri senator, cited poor planning and leadership as a reason for this.

Talent described a lack of coordination in regards to decision-making on the matter, comparing the issue to being like an army without bullets in the absence of countermeasures for these agents.

The witnesses were asked whether they thought it most challenging to isolate, weaponize or disperse in response to a biological threat. Talent responded that weaponizing would most likely be the most difficult.

“When you keep running the risk and the risk continues to grow, even gradually, the bullet’s in the chamber, if you will,” Talent said.

Preparation, diagnostics and organization were the main issues for both the committee and the witnesses. In addition to this, committee member Mark Walker (R-NC) expressed concern over whether or not those serving in the healthcare field are being looked out for by the government.

Talent cited the poor job the government does on orientation for healthcare workers in general. Cairns emphasized the need for a movement towards paramedicine. Focusing on public safety in addition to healthcare and those who serve in this field, he argued, could be a potential solution.

The consensus that the witnesses all seemed to arrive at was an agreed need for improvement in the way that America deals with the threat of bioterrorism. McSally explained that because the members of the terrorist group ISIS are known to have an interest in biological weapons, now is as important a time as ever to sharpen the nation’s skill set in terms of bioterrorism response. Talent added that Al Quaeda is more capable of creating biological weapons than they are nuclear weapons.

“I think the first lesson is we need to be prepared,” Raphael said.

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