The United States has improved its odds of defeating a biological attack from agents such as smallpox or anthrax, a report to be released today concludes.
But scientists and biotechnology specialists still believe the nation is woefully ill-equipped to handle a more sophisticated terrorist attack using newer bioengineered germs or other unanticipated pathogens, according to the report by the Center for Biosecurity of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and Sarnoff Corp., a for-profit technology research company in Princeton, N.J.
The lack of vaccines for SARS and West Nile Virus, and the nation's difficulty manufacturing large quantities of flu vaccine, are seen as early signs of the potential problem. A major contributing factor is that the nation's system for developing drugs and vaccines operates on a peace-time pace, requiring 10 years on average to produce new products, the report says.
"In a time of emergency we're going to need that to be 10 months, 10 weeks, maybe 10 days," said Mark Lister, a senior vice president of the Sarnoff Corp. and co-author of the report. "It's a pretty ugly scenario."
The report summarizes the results of 30 interviews conducted with government, academic and corporate officials, including senior biodefense specialists in the federal government.
The survey found nearly unanimous agreement that a biological terrorist attack is likely in the United States, and that a naturally occurring epidemic caused by an emerging and as-yet unbeatable pathogen, similar to the 2003 SARS outbreak in China, is "a virtual certainty."
Participants in the survey also agreed that President Bush's BioShield program enacted this year, which includes $5.6 billion to stockpile vaccines for anthrax, smallpox and other known terror agents over the next 10 years, should go a long way to minimize the potential impact of those threats. But a likely consequence, the report suggested, is that terrorists will try to develop mutated strains that are resistant to antibodies, or entirely new germs that the medical community has not contemplated.
Responding to such an attack or outbreak would be difficult and cumbersome because the country's commercial drug companies have shifted resources away from medicines to treat infectious diseases, and toward more profitable ailments such as heart disease, the report's authors said. Without greater financial incentives and protection from liability, commercial laboratories are unlikely to change.
The report, titled "Taking the Measure of Countermeasures: Leaders' views on the nation's capacity to develop biodefense countermeasures," will be posted on the Center for Biosecurity's Web site today.