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Last Updated

09 Jul 2003

Source: Newsday, July 9, 2003

Feds Lack Biodefense Talent

Report: Agencies need more experts to handle terror attack


Washington - A large-scale bioterrorism attack would "overwhelm" federal biodefense agencies because they lack adequate expertise and personnel, according to a new report that recommends revising hiring rules to attract top talent.

The report said the medical, scientific and technical experts who would respond to a biological attack are shunning or leaving federal jobs for the more-lucrative and less-bureaucratic private sector. "The federal hiring process constitutes more than a burden - it constitutes a strategic vulnerability," said the report by the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan Washington group founded in 2001 that seeks to revitalize public service.

Staffing problems were evident during the anthrax attacks of 2001, when the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention labs were processing so many potential anthrax samples that they "could not address any other public health issue," the report says. The anthrax mailings, which killed five people, forced CDC employees to work around the clock, sometimes sleeping in labs, and "stretched our resources to capacity because the limited supply of biodefense talent available to CDC has diminished in recent years."

Key officials endorsed the report yesterday, including Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairwoman Susan Collins (R-Maine), who called it "further evidence of the need for reform" and vowed to support revamping the federal hiring system.

Dr. Tara O'Toole, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies, called bioterrorism "the most serious security threat facing the United States" and said, "Because this is such a new problem, the kinds of people that you need aren't now in government."

The Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees CDC and other key biodefense agencies, called the report's points "valid." Spokesman Tony Jewell said the agency has improved the government's biodefense capabilities through new staff, including 800 new food-safety employees, 500 new CDC employees at state and local health agencies, and 2,000 more people working for national disaster medical teams.

But the report said the federal government must improve the recruitment and retention of biodefense experts, who often get frustrated with hiring delays and inflexible pay scales. "We're not attracting the young people," O'Toole said.

The report also said roughly half the government's 35,000 biodefense employees are eligible for retirement in the next five years. Federal officials told the report's authors of "losing some of their most talented employees to academic and private-sector organizations" offering salaries 30 percent to 40 percent higher than government wages.