U.S. Again Gets Low Marks on Biothreat Preparedness

Jon is a staff writer for Science.

The United States today brought home yet another ugly report card that says it's woefully unprepared to respond to a bioattack.

Issued by the Bipartisan WMD Terrorism Research Center, the report card is part of a 69-page analysis that rates eight different components of the country's bioresponse capabilities. The WMD Center, as its known, dished out 15 F's, 15 D's, seven C's, and eight B's. Bleak as that may sound, the report stresses that a few key improvements recently have taken place and suggests a refocusing of priorities that could improve many D's to C's in the "relative near term."

The WMD Center, a nonprofit that grew of out of a congressional commission, consists of former politicians and retired military brass who have joined up with clinicians and public health officials. That commission issued a similar report card in January 2010 that awarded even lower marks. "Clearly, America's preparedness to respond to small-scale bio-events has improved in many of the categories assessed for this report," the new assessment states.

Before issuing the current report card, the WMD Center asked its board of advisers to come up with questions that then went to a wide range of government officials. The report card evaluates everything from detection of threats to the availability of medical countermeasures, the likelihood of identifying the attacker, communication systems, and cleanup efforts. It also separately rates these responses in the face of small, large, and global threats. The report soberly concludes that "the nation does not yet have adequate bio-response capability to meet fundamental expectations during a large-scale biological event."

In a provocative challenge to conventional wisdom, the report suggests that the U.S. government not focus on the F grades, several of which refer to worst-case scenarios like drug-resistant bioweapons or millions of casualties. Instead, it says the "best return on investment" will come from strengthening responses to much more likely large-scale contagious and noncontagious events.

Retired Major General Philip Russell, a member of the WMD Center's advisory board, says the new report is both "even handed" and "credible." Russell, a former top official at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, says if he still worked for the government on these issues he'd be "a little bit embarrassed" by the report card. But he says it's deserved. "It reflects the feeling of many of us that the government has not paid much attention—and certainly not effectively—to the biothreat," says Russell.

Posted in Policy