Remember anthrax? The investigation into the anthrax attacks that killed five people and infected eighteen others this past fall drags on, and the FBI says it has not identified any firm suspects. The whodunit question aside, the Bush Administration has announced it will spend more than $11 billion to counter bioterrorism in the next two years. That sounds like plenty of money, but will it be used properly? As Marc Siegel shows on page 14, a major problem with the government’s response to the anthrax assaults last year had nothing to do with money. Rather, the FBI’s unwillingness to work fully with the Centers for Disease Control led to poor decision-making that placed mail handlers and others at risk. At the same time, the government overreacted, putting more people on antibiotics–perhaps the wrong ones–than was necessary.
This episode illustrates the need for scientists and epidemiologists to be completely involved in any response to a biological threat. But much of the money the government is spending on bioterrorism will go to stockpiling antibiotics and vaccines, and in many instances stockpiles are less useful than a well-managed and well-coordinated first response. Antibiotics would not be the weapon of choice against a bubonic plague attack, for instance, which is best thwarted by public-health measures like quarantining, tracking those infected and exterminating rodents.
To counter the threat of bioterrorism, the government will have to use its new funds to build a cadre of medical experts, bolster coordination among agencies and dramatically improve the communications systems between the Feds and local agencies.