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Last Updated

07 Jul 2003

Source: New York Times, July 6, 2003

Report Calls U.S. Agencies Understaffed for Bioterror


WASHINGTON, July 5 The government is likely to be overwhelmed in the event of a bioterrorism attack because of serious shortages in skilled medical and scientific personnel, according to a study by a public service advocacy group.

"Perhaps more than any other terrorist threat, bioterrorism will place huge burdens on small pools of medical, scientific and technical expertise," the study concluded. "These organizations are already exhibiting hairline cracks some would say fractures that may presage disaster."

The study, which focused on five federal biodefense agencies, will be made public on Tuesday. It was prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit group founded in 2001 that seeks to attract more qualified people to government service.

The study found that the anthrax mailings in 2001, which killed five people, created confusion and heavily burdened the federal agencies that responded to the incident.

The attacks forced employees at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to work around the clock and to sleep in their laboratories as they performed tests on tens of thousands of specimens.

The study suggested that a larger attack involving infectious diseases would probably be overwhelming.

A planning exercise in 2001 called Dark Winter, which involved the simulated release of smallpox virus, showed that crucial public health decisions had to be made in the early stages of such an event, but the study said policy makers "were generally unfamiliar with the character of bioterrorist attacks."

Billions of dollars have been allocated for so-called first responders like police officers, firefighters, ambulance and hospital workers, and National Guard units to improve their training for emergencies involving chemical, biological and nuclear attacks.

But the study found that far fewer resources have been sought by the federal government for medical and scientific experts.

"We have uncovered a serious underinvestment in the human side of addressing the bioterrorism threat," Max Stier, president and chief executive of the partnership, said in an interview.

"Each of the five agencies plays a central role in responding to the bioterrorism threat," he said. "The resources they have are stretched too thin."

The group recommended that the government undertake a campaign including the recruitment of biodefense experts trained in fields like genetics, infectious disease medicine, bacteriology, microbiology, pharmacology, epidemiology and the physics of aerosol attacks.

The study said the federal agencies that faced serious staffing issues were the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the Food and Drug Administration, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Representatives of several agencies that have jurisdiction over counterterrorism programs the Homeland Security Department, the Department of Health and Human Services, the National Institutes of Health and the disease control centers declined to comment on the study's findings.

The study found that there were far too few people in the government with the skills needed to respond effectively to a bioterror attack.

"Based on our interviews with officials from these agencies and other areas of biodefense research," the study said, "we found that the federal employees responsible for our defenses against bioterrorist attacks constitute a `civilian thin blue line' that is retreating both in terms of capacity and expertise."

The study, based on interviews with senior agency officials and a review of technical literature on the subject, cited several specific problems. It found that biodefense agencies struggled to hire employees with adequate scientific and medical expertise, and concluded that the need for highly trained personnel would increase, while the supply of such talent is likely to decline.

At the same time, these agencies were found to be losing some of their most talented employees because of government pay systems geared less to outstanding performance than to longevity in service.

Moreover, the agencies are likely to face "significant and unavoidable hurdles" in maintaining staffing levels because half of the employees in critical jobs are eligible to retire in the next five years, the study found.

Even efforts to fix the problems are likely to run into difficulty. The study cited the "byzantine hiring process" used by the federal government, which it said had already left some agencies without employees with the appropriate skills to respond to a bioterror attack.